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American Politics Has A Three Stooges Problem
Two many people try to get through once again
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In the latest print edition of The Spectator, I write about the GOP’s Three Stooges problem — one that you can extend to the rest of American politics.
When The Simpsons’s evil billionaire C. Montgomery Burns heads for a checkup, the doctor informs him he has virtually every disease known to man, including some just discovered for the first time. The odd thing is that all these diseases are in “perfect balance,” which the doctor illustrates by trying to shove a bunch of fuzzy novelty germs through a tiny door all at once. When they’re all jammed together, none can actually make it through — an example of “Three Stooges syndrome.” Despite the doctor’s warning that even a slight breeze could upset this balance, Burns happily concludes that he is “indestructible.”
The Republican Party had a serious bout of Three Stooges syndrome in 2016. With every candidate concluding that they could beat Donald Trump if only they were to take him on mano a mano, the early incentive structure demanded hitting each other more than hitting him.
Trump’s victory was a shocking affirmation that the famous 2012 Republican “autopsy” had been better titled than they knew. And as his presidency supplied conservatives with one policy victory after another, it was clear there was no going back. This new party coalition was changing, trading suburban women for working- and middle-class Latinos and Asians, leaning into culture-war issues and no longer kowtowing to a Democratic media.
At the same time, the legal attacks on Trump himself and those closest to him sucked up the administration’s ability to achieve more permanent victories. Trump was reduced to governing via executive order and judicial nominations, which flowed out of the White House and the Senate. And once Covid arrived in 2020, the opportunity to advance other Republican goals disappeared, as Trump and his administration ceded control to a public health bureaucracy that they began to question only when it was too late.
Now Trump is attempting to make the case that he should get a do-over. He maintains that the 2020 election was rigged against him — when asked to explain why every lawsuit his team brought failed, why his allegations of fraud resulted in minimal findings of mishandled ballots, or why he believed the ridiculous legal theories that claimed Mike Pence could effectively undo the result on January 6, Trump descends into argle bargle. The promises he’s making in his 2024 campaign are essentially the same as his last ones — that he’ll achieve the things he promised he would achieve before, and would have if not for those meddling Democrats at the Department of Justice, the FBI and the media.
Depending on which poll you believe, Trump has half the party backing him — and this time, it includes the most conservative voters, the same people who provided the last boost of Cruz support in 2016. Trump won that election in part because he had the support of the most moderate voters in the GOP coalition, the group that had previously chosen Mitt Romney and John McCain. But this time around, moderates have soured on Trump. His tone and the sour taste of impeachment and indictment are just too much for them.
For the rest of the GOP field, the Three Stooges problem is back with a vengeance. While Ron DeSantis commands double digits in polling in the early states, he is followed by a litany of single-digit contenders who are once again preventing anything like a one-on-one contest. The cast of characters includes known and unknown personalities, from the staid, moralistic former vice president, to the once great neoconservative hope, the senator who frustrates leftist racial stereotypes, an ex-governor who missed his moment, an entrepreneur who seems bent on doing everything he can to help Trump, and a half-dozen others who have no shot at even making it onto the ticket. Jammed together in a tiny doorway, they are setting up a repeat of the dynamic where all roads lead to Trump.
The truly infuriating aspect of this if you believe the party ought to move on from the Orange Man — and if you believe the polls for a general election, particularly in swing states, Trump loses to Joe Biden once again — is that most of these candidates are running because they have nothing better to do. In 2016, you had a bevy of aspirational Tea Party senators in Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul and a slew of accomplished governors in Scott Walker, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal and of course megadollars Jeb Bush. All of them could squint and see a path to nomination. But Mike Pence is intensely disliked by half the party, Nikki Haley is viewed as a neocon at a time when that is very out of style, Tim Scott has an inspiring story but seems more like a number two than a commander-in-chief and Vivek Ramaswamy appears as interested at furthering a media career as he is in being an elected politician.
Only Chris Christie seems to be running based on a clear motivation: revenge. One of Trump’s earliest big endorsers following his defenestration of Rubio on the debate stage, Christie was sidelined by Jared Kushner once Trump won, unceremoniously tossed out on his ear. Christie has been beating the anti-Trump drum more loudly than anyone of late; he seems to be running a suicide campaign that is already winning him fans… just not among Republican primary voters.
The challenge for DeSantis in particular, but for the others as well, is how to attack Trump’s obvious weaknesses without having his supporters feel they are just echoing the criticisms of the left. A basic rule of thumb: if Jake Tapper is nodding along with your critiques, it’s bad; if Laura Ingraham is, that’s good. So far, only DeSantis has really engaged in even somewhat pointed criticisms: that Trump lost winnable elections for Republicans; that he failed to deliver on the border, law and order and “draining the swamp”; and that if elected, he can only serve one term, making him a lame-duck president from day one.
Washington D.C. is a Failed City
Let’s start with the raw data. As of July 2023, Washington’s homicide rate was the sixth highest of any US city, and the highest rate in a city of its population or greater. DC logged 203 homicides in 2022, and that number is on tack to grow by 20% in 2023. Violent crime more broadly is up 30% this year. A resident’s probability of being the victim of a violent crime in a given year is around 1 in 75, and if property crime is included, that rises to 1 in 17 — among the highest in the nation. There is a stereotype outside of Washington (and even among some in it) that crime in the District is confined to certain “bad neighbourhoods” — particularly the city’s South-East. The implication being that the wealthier residents of the leafy North-West and increasingly fashionable North-East are insulated from it all. This contention, apart from its callous dismissal of much of the city’s population, is flat-out wrong.
Neighbourhood Scout identifies the campus of Catholic University of America, just north of Union Station, as the safest neighbourhood in the city. But just last week, a 25-year-old Kentuckian teacher visiting for a conference was shot and killed there. The same day, Alison Cienfuegos, a 21-year-old college student who wanted to become an anaesthesiologist, was murdered in South-East DC. The day before that, Nasrat Ahmad Yar, a former interpreter for the US Army in Afghanistan who then worked as a Lyft driver, was murdered by a group of passengers in North-East. In May, a 12-year-old girl in South-East was hit in the leg by a stray bullet from a shootout outside as she lay in bed. In February, a man shot several random passengers on a city bus and slaughtered a Metro transit worker near the city’s popular Eastern Market neighbourhood. And last month, we marked one-year since the mass shooting of four people at a Juneteenth party in Northwest.
This crimewave extends beyond gun violence. Since early 2023, North-West DC has increasingly fallen victim to organised shoplifting; nowadays it’s hard to find a tube of toothpaste for sale that isn’t under lock and key. On 30 April, two CVS Pharmacies in North-West were targeted within half hour of each other by the same group of five suspects, who stuffed large trash bags with goods before fleeing in a stolen car. And stolen cars themselves are increasingly easy to come by. In 2022, there were 485 carjackings in DC, up from only 140 four years earlier — an increase The Washington Post described as leaving authorities “baffled”.
And then there are the unclassifiable crimes of civil disorder, chaos and squalor. Three North-East businesses were targeted with explosives last week. There have been eight documented arson attacks in the past six months. And there are the mobs of illegal ATV and dirt bike riders roaring down DC’s main arteries while endangering and verbally abusing pedestrians, who cannot be apprehended due to the city’s “no chase” police laws. Washington also has the biggest per-capita homelessness problem on the East Coast (over 1% of its population), and the third-highest opioid drug mortality rate in the nation. I could go on.
Nolan vs. Zaslav
On December 3, 2020, Warner Bros. announced that its 2021 films—all 17 of them, including Dune and the third Matrix sequel—would premiere simultaneously in theaters and on the service then known as HBO Max. It was an unexpected development, to say the least. Theatrical exhibition had been devastated by the pandemic, and the FDA would not authorize the first coronavirus vaccines for another week. But this was a major studio putting its bets on streaming rather than theaters for (at least) the next year, a move most speculated had as much to do with HBO Max’s flagging subscription numbers as a concern for public health and safety.
Four days after the announcement, Nolan weighed in, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.” By Nolan’s logic, this wasn’t just about art, but about business. “Their decision makes no economic sense,” he added, “and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction.” It was an issue disturbing enough for Nolan to end his relationship with Warner Bros., a collaboration that dated back to his 2002 remake of Insomnia, his first film for a major studio. In September 2021, news broke that Nolan’s next film, a biopic of atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, would be for Universal…
Still, the merger of Warner Bros. and Discovery in April 2022 into the Brundlefly-like Warner Bros. Discovery seemed to confirm the wisdom of Nolan’s decision to bolt. With that merger came Zaslav’s ascent to CEO of the new company, a role he’d previously played at Discovery.
A catalog of Zaslav’s greatest hits since taking control of Warner Bros. Discovery would be an article unto itself. In fact, GQ had a pretty good article written by Jason Bailey earlier this month that detailed just that—you might have heard about it because the piece was edited to soften its criticisms at the request of a Zaslav spokesman, and then the story was pulled entirely when Bailey asked for his byline to be removed. (The original still exists in archived form.) Some highlights include the shelving of a nearly completed Batgirl movie, which allowed the studio to use it as a tax write-off; the removal of original series made for HBO and other networks, including the once-mighty Westworld, also seemingly for tax purposes; and the sell-off of over half of Warner Bros.’ film and TV music assets.
Nothing is as concerning, or as revealing of Zaslav’s vision of the movies, however, as the gutting of Turner Classic Movies, the beloved cable destination for classic film. Thoughtfully programmed to provide context for our cinematic past, TCM has been essential to cinephiles since 1994—increasingly so since the shuttering of video stores and other channels’ retreats from airing classic films. (It’s now a distant memory that AMC used to be TCM’s rival.) It was, from all evidence, a gutting performed less out of necessity than out of an attempt to save money, any money, no matter what was lost in the process. TCM was, by all reports, a profitable operation, if not one destined to pad out the coffers of Warner Bros. Discovery to Uncle Scrooge–like dimensions. An intervention by Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Martin Scorsese led Zaslav to restate his commitment to TCM and his love of classic film—which he also expressed via an unconvincing and glib Maureen Dowd column—but TCM remains a decimated operation with an unsure future in the climate Zaslav has created.
Items of Interest
“The most interesting of the classic movie genres to me are the indigenous ones: the Western, which was born on the Frontier, the Gangster Film, which originated in the East Coast cities, and the Musical, which was spawned by Broadway. They remind me of jazz: they allowed for endless, increasingly complex, sometimes perverse variations. When these variations were played by the masters, they reflected the changing times; they gave you fascinating insights into American culture and the American psyche.”
— Martin Scorsese