Peggy Noonan Speaks Truth: The Circuits Are Overloaded

Peggy Noonan’s in the Wall Street Journal today with a genuine and useful insight:

Mr. Trump has overloaded all circuits. Everything is too charged, with sparks and small shocks all over. “Nothing feels stable,” I mused to a longtime Washington media figure at a dinner the night before the Prayer Breakfast. “Nothing is stable,” she replied.

Noonan captures here, I think, a truth about the current moment, particularly how it feels. Every night, my wife and I look at each other and ask, How long can this go on. This constant sense of disruption, this sense that every day is a decade, a minute a year.

But stepping back from the feeling of the moment to its politics, I think Noonan is also revealing a truth in spite of herself. For while she insists on distinguishing a conservatism of prudence and care, of caution and slowness, the truth is conservatism is almost always hostile to stability, and often favors overloading all circuits, making everything feel charged.

But it does so—or at least can get away with doing so—in a very specific context: when it is encountering an insurgent movement from below that threatens to overturn long established relations of authority and power. At such moments, rhyme and reason coincide. At such moments, the “generous wildness of Quixotism,” as Burke put it, “the madness of the wise” can seem like the greatest sobriety of all. At such moments, audacity can appear in the cover of prudence, wildness in the garb of caution and care. (Noonan need only read some of the speeches of her hero, Ronald Reagan, to see how skillfully he was able to walk this fine line.)

What Trump is running up against is the fact that we don’t live in such a moment, and the reason we don’t is because the conservative movement has been so successful in defeating the left.

For decades, Trump’s base was ginned up on this lethal cocktail of strategic madness and intelligent wildness, but now it’s late, and the bar is closed. The left has been crushed—even our new progressive insurgencies have a long long way to go before they can generate the kind of panicked genius and intelligent anxiety that traditionally provoke the right—and Quixotism now seems, well, Quixotic; madness, mad.

What was once strategy is now surplus.

And that’s why Peggy Noonan feels like the circuits are overloaded: They are.


  1. lazycat1984 February 6, 2017 at 12:15 pm | #

    I shed no tears for Peggy Noonan. It’d be nice to see her and the rest of the people who for decades have steadily undermined constitutional rule and replaced it with emergency rule, perpetual crisis/response fall victim to the police state they engineered.

  2. Rich Puchalsky February 6, 2017 at 12:30 pm | #

    The liberal attraction to order can be very dangerous. A Twitter thread here:

  3. Critical Reading (@CriticalReading) February 6, 2017 at 12:34 pm | #

    Noonan wrote some of those Reagan speeches.

    • Corey Robin February 6, 2017 at 12:58 pm | #

      I’m actually thinking of the First Inaugural and his first State of the Union Address and his early speeches, in 1981, on the budget. She may have already been in the White House, then, I’m not sure, but I don’t think she was quite at the level she would become within a few years, i.e., writing the speech about the Challenger explosion.

  4. stephenkmacksd February 6, 2017 at 12:35 pm | #

    It is telling that Trump radicalizes Peronism, in that he is not simply the Caudillo who lets his minions fight it out, and then he enters the political area, as the clarifying force. Trump manufactures his politically exploitable chaos on twitter. And lets the respectable bourgeois pundits,technocrats and political chatterers, like the dithering Noonan, experience the political vertigo he has created. Let them deal with the chaos they experience as reality, while sociopath Trump rides the crest of The Rebellion Against The Elites: The Financial Times Party Line in its many permutations.

  5. jonnybutter February 6, 2017 at 12:45 pm | #

    What was once strategy is now surplus.

    Very clear now. Great post.

    I think we are now paying a high price for having a strict two party system, because the two are bound to end up being symbiotic, a feedback loop as trap. The problem is that Democrats run out of ways to be passive before reactionaries run out of ways to be aggressive. It’s a closer race than you’d think, but still.

    You could be describing me and my wife, btw, re: every minute a year, etc. It’s so exhausting!

    • WLGR February 7, 2017 at 10:29 am | #

      I think we are now paying a high price for having a strict two party system, because the two are bound to end up being symbiotic, a feedback loop as trap. The problem is that Democrats run out of ways to be passive before reactionaries run out of ways to be aggressive.

      Fair enough as far as it goes, but my worry right now is that institutional Democrats mouthing slogans like “when they go low, we go high” have convinced themselves that passivity itself is a form of Resistance to the Trump-era GOP’s bellicosity, which counterintuitively implies that the wave of Democrats voting for Trump’s early nominees genuinely were trying to Resist what they genuinely interpret as the truly terrifying thing about Trump. To resist the encroaching darkness of Trump’s disrespect for norms, one such norm being the Senate’s largely uncontested confirmation of a new administration’s executive appointees, in these Democrats’ view means to respect these norms even more fanatically than before — and conversely, to resist the actual encroaching darkness of Trump’s continuation and in some cases acceleration of dangerous and destructive policies spearheaded by “respectable” prior administrations, in these Democrats’ view would actually be an act of surrender to the counter-normative anti-establishment populism that actually makes him dangerous. (Which is why we’re already seeing some of them push back against anti-Trump pushback, e.g. this from Rep. Adam Schiff: “The radical nature of this government is radicalizing Democrats, and that’s going to pose a real challenge to the Democratic Party, which is to draw on the energy and the activism and the passion that is out there, but not let it turn us into what we despised about the Tea Party.”) Alt-centrists, indeed!

      • jonnybutter February 7, 2017 at 12:41 pm | #

        Democrats mouthing slogans like “when they go low, we go high” have convinced themselves that passivity itself is a form of Resistance

        Notwithstanding whatever stupid thing Dems convince themselves of at any given time, passivity is passivity. Dems are almost a subsidiary of the Republicans now. And that’s a real problem for the latter because the GOP also needs resistance, contrast; but since the Dems just ‘go limp’, they (GOP) has to make stuff up (e.g. Obama is a socialist [I wish!]) and get crazier and crazier. It’s really a deeply stupid situation.

        After Dubya and then Trump, how do they top themselves? It’s like having to invent a new kind of porno – whatever next?! RABBIT COSTUMES?

        But the Dems are complete jellyfishes. Total capitulation. They’re very used to being in the minority, like Republicans were used to being in congress before 1980. They don’t stand for a real alternative, so…kind of stuck.

        • jonnybutter February 7, 2017 at 2:34 pm | #

          After Dubya and then Trump, how do they top themselves?

          Maybe they could nominate and elect a fictional character. In a way that would circle back to St Ronnie, who lived in something of a fantasy world, esp later in his admin: “I know it’s odd that Mr Clean is president now, but what can we do? He won fair and square, with 43% of the popular vote. Maybe he’ll rise to the occasion..’

        • WLGR February 9, 2017 at 3:23 pm | #

          Dems are almost a subsidiary of the Republicans now.

          As appropriate as corporate metaphors increasingly seem in our neoliberal age (although part of the problem is the way metaphors like “marketplace of ideas”, “human capital”, and “entrepreneur of the self” are increasingly treated as literal) Dems as a subsidiary of the GOP still doesn’t seem quite right. I prefer Roquentin’s metaphor of a two-stroke engine: one stroke compresses the fuel to ignition, the other releases the compressed air and provides fuel for the next compression, and not only are the two strokes completely interdependent but the functioning of the engine depends on this interdependent relationship. The implication is that if we object to this engine or the direction it’s headed, it’d be nonsensical to treat one stroke as a “subsidiary” of the other or as taking a greater share of blame than the other — we’d have to attack the engine as a unified system, i.e. the present institutions of electoral politics in general, or else starve it of the fuel that makes it run, i.e. the profits of the capitalist economy.

          • jonnybutter February 9, 2017 at 4:51 pm | #

            two stroke engine

            I meant ‘subsidiary’ in the ideological sense. And, I said ‘almost’. And I then went on to describe a dysfunctional symbiotic relationship – which I also called ‘symbiotic’ in another nearby comment.

            i say it’s ‘dysfunctional’ instead of ‘functional’ because the opposition (Democrats) are supposed to be a little more formidable after such a long time as the Out Party (35 years or so) – so as to maintain some rough balance in the two-stroke cycle. Instead, Democrats continually scurry Right (and mostly lose), into the space Repubs abandon on their way even further right; they, of course, have to keep moving so as to differentiate themselves from the simpering Dems and keep their assholes ‘fired up’.

            So, I think it’s not a smoothly functioning, balanced engine. I think we have some bent engine parts, or a missing pin (or something), and the machine is kinked, deforming itself more and more as it churns on. Things will shake apart or break if it continues.

            I also used the commercial term ‘subsidiary’ because it sounded mocking and dismissive to the Democrats, who deserve it. Dems wonder why so many vote for Republicans when they may prefer Dems’ policies. Closed circuit to Democrats: it’s because people despise you. They may fear the Right, but they just despise you – have no respect at all. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, given the choice between an asshole and an obvious coward, a lot of people will tend to vote for the asshole.

          • jonnybutter February 9, 2017 at 4:56 pm | #

            sorry for the open tag : (

  6. Howard February 6, 2017 at 1:20 pm | #

    Corey: Do you judge conservatism unstable by whit of disrupting the present state of things to usher in a past that whether it ever was, just cannot be?
    Or must I purchase a copy of your book to find my answer?

  7. Thomas Rossetti February 6, 2017 at 1:57 pm | #

    One important measure of who is winning and losing politically is the hierarchy of society. The left has not been crushed at all. Tell people of color, gays, women, that they have been losing. No, liberal politics has worked. Maybe America as an imperial military state is not what you want from a left politics, but the projection of soft power has been one of Obama’s great achievements. I say it is time for Corey Robin to get over the politics of 1948 and recognize the victories of liberalism as well as the defeats. The forces of reaction are never going to be able to put America back in their bottle. Millions of people in the streets are a real testament to liberal politics. Income inequality is a tough nut to crack, but that too is coming. The first order of business is ti impeach Trump, or more likely force his resignation. He is cracking, just keep the pressure on. Isn’t it time for intellectuals of the left to think of a popular front.?

  8. rdp36 February 6, 2017 at 2:15 pm | #

    Things will calm down soon. Trump will figure out how to shut up (or Congress repubs will find a way to shut him up). White house and congress will start undoing what little progress was made under Obama. Earth will warm. Cities will flood.

    We’ve got to fight Trump and his minions. Really wish we had a biased distorting Fox like media network. Yeah, not very moral, but perhaps effective.

  9. LFC February 6, 2017 at 4:48 pm | #

    For decades, Trump’s base was ginned up on this lethal cocktail of strategic madness and intelligent wildness, but now it’s late, and the bar is closed.

    Part of the base was prob. ginned up in this basically top-down way.

    Then there is another part of “the base” — or maybe just a slice of people who voted for Trump — who were motivated by other things and needed only a little “ginning up” to be persuaded to vote for Trump.

    This gets back to the fruitless post-election debate about whether Trump’s voters were motivated by racism/xenophobia or ‘economic anxiety’. It’s a false choice: some were motivated by one, some by the other, some by a mixture.

    Caught an interview on Fresh Air w Brian Anderson, author of a book about Lancaster, Ohio. Yet more evidence that ec. and social conditions in certain communities were not unconnected to the Trump vote.

    • WLGR February 7, 2017 at 11:10 am | #

      This gets back to the fruitless post-election debate about whether Trump’s voters were motivated by racism/xenophobia or ‘economic anxiety’. It’s a false choice: some were motivated by one, some by the other, some by a mixture.

      It is indeed a fruitless debate and a false choice, but based on your phrasing it seems you still don’t understand that the fruitlessness and falsity lies in treating the two as analytically distinct categories at all. The anxiety motivating Trump’s voters, that white Americans’ race and nationality might no longer inherently grant us an elevated place in the global division of wealth and income, is at once irreducibly racist/xenophobic and irreducibly economic; it’s not about race or class, it’s about race no longer functioning as itself a form of class. To mechanistically separate these as two different forms of anxiety is to guarantee a shallow understanding of both.

      • LFC February 7, 2017 at 1:40 pm | #

        I see where you’re coming from here, WLGR, but as an analytical matter I think some separation of the categories is probably warranted, even if at some level they are also connected.

        Many voters are not directly concerned with — or even necessarily aware of — their place in “the global division of wealth and income” (your phrase). Rather, they are concerned with their current circumstances as measured against either their former circumstances or against what they have heard about the past. Hence, for instance, the Trump voter in Lancaster OH, as reported by Brian Anderson, who said she was voting for Trump because she “just wants things to be like they were” — which in the context is a reference to how the town used to be economically, not racially. It was a largely white town and still is; but the town’s main company, Anchor Hocking Glass, now employs about 900 people as opposed to the 5,000 it employed at its height.

        I’m not saying such voters tipped the scales for Trump, though in Ohio and other rust-belt states they might very well have, because I have not closely read and studied the analyses of the voting patterns (which anyway are frequently susceptible to more than one interpretation). But it does seem to me reasonable to say that the woman quoted was not voting out of xenophobia but out of frustration and nostalgia tied to economic changes that can be laid in some substantial part at the door of the various things lumped under ‘neoliberalism’ (both domestically and globally).

        • WLGR February 9, 2017 at 3:02 pm | #

          Many voters are not directly concerned with — or even necessarily aware of — their place in “the global division of wealth and income” (your phrase).

          I don’t think you’re giving Trump voters enough credit. They may not care to study the administrative intricacies of global supply chains or the geopolitics of labor arbitrage, but they’re surely aware that the people they blame for “taking their jobs” through either immigration or outsourcing are worse off economically than they are, and/or from countries worse off economically than theirs is. The problem is that without a baseline of racism and xenophobia, the standard Panglossian liberal view of capitalist economic development (crudely put, the idea that all nations and peoples are on the same trajectory toward a utopian endstate called “development” and some are just a bit further along this path than others) otherwise leaves the fundamental cause of this divergence largely unaddressed. Accordingly, for them racism and xenophobia stands in relation to liberal capitalist ideology sort of like the divine messenger from Mark Twain’s War Prayer in relation to the jingoist preacher, so for example, if the preacher intones that “America is great because America is good”, they wouldn’t necessarily shrink from filling in the unspoken “Syria is in shambles because Syria is evil”. Another conclusion these people consider natural is that liberals averse to these racist/xenophobic implications are either soft-headed and unrealistic or else hiding their deeper opposition to the entire capitalist/imperialist project, which is part of why e.g. Obama as a secret Marxist strikes them as plausible, and part of why “political correctness” is viewed as such an evasive and dishonest denial of the way things really are.

          Of course a non-racist and non-xenophobic alternative explanation for the global division of wealth and income could focus on the foundational imperialism of the global capitalist economy: a history of direct uncompensated wealth transfer from periphery to core and capital export from core to periphery, creating a flow of value back to the core that made it possible for capital to grant the nominal working classes of the core nations a higher standard of living than would otherwise be attainable for capitalist wage laborers. By this narrative, the brief Golden Age of relative stability for (white First-World) workers has almost run its course thanks to the depletion of new precapitalist societies for the global economy to absorb as well as the general tendency of the rate of profit to fall, such that value of higher wages and social services is being redirected toward shoring up profit margins. But of course this narrative cuts against the embrace of capitalism to which alt-right and alt-center are equally committed, so even if it would convert every last Trump voter overnight to an ironclad agenda of anti-racism and anti-xenophobia, it’d still be far more out of the question than Trumpism ever will be.

  10. David Egan February 6, 2017 at 6:04 pm | #

    Peggy Noonan doesn’t have to read some speeches of her hero Ronald Reagan, she wrote them.

    • Corey Robin February 6, 2017 at 8:24 pm | #

      Someone already made the same comment above. I already responded.

  11. Roquentin February 6, 2017 at 6:05 pm | #

    I have to admit, I don’t agree with your analysis. For starters, it assumes that the left has been thoroughly defeated and while in a certain sense that is true, it also assumes we’ve hit some kind of floor, a rock bottom, to which no further defeat and drift to the right is possible. You and I both know that isn’t true. We aren’t even close to the bottom. These people quite literally envision some kind of nationalist neo-feudal system as their Utopia. In their eyes, this is justified because they have a lot further to go. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I sometimes think you have blinders on because of the circles you run in. You miss a level of nastiness and viciousness in politics or have some kind of belief in the fundamental decency of the US government which you shouldn’t. If I’m mistaken, I apologize.

    The bottom, if you want my $.02, is a collapse similar to that of the USSR. Much rather than a supposed fascist state (I think Trump and Co. are far too incompetent for that), this is the end game of where they will take us if left to their own devices. Trump could be our Gorbachev (minus the high idealism of Perestroika) or more accurately our Yeltsin, a hopeless corrupt leader who presides over the wholesale looting of state industry, and eventually grinds the entire system to halt. Things got so bad in Russia that the population actually shrank during the “shock therapy” there. To me, as loathe as I am to predict the future, this is a much more likely endgame than fascism.

  12. mark February 7, 2017 at 5:01 am | #

    ‘Where did I go wrong? Or, why Trump may be like Jimmy Carter’ is an argument that strikes me, as a description of modern political party, as similar to that functional core of Montesquieu’s link between monarchy and aristocracy in the 18th century.

  13. stevenjohnson February 7, 2017 at 8:45 am | #

    “For decades, Trump’s base was ginned up on this lethal cocktail of strategic madness and intelligent wildness, but now it’s late, and the bar is closed.”

    That’s what Celebrity Apprentice was all about? If I’d known that I might have bothered to see the show.

    Before you talk about Trump’s base so authoritatively perhaps it would be wise to establish what that base is. It starts with free publicity from the mass media, which appears to have zero to do with any strategic madness and intelligent wildness. His abortive run for President on a Birther platform might have but it didn’t get mass media support. (Yes, I know he didn’t formally announce.)

  14. b. February 7, 2017 at 11:39 am | #

    “the conservative movement has been so successful in defeating the left.”

    That, to borrow a phrase, is true, but also irrelevant.

    The “conservative movement” – not really a movement, given its funding sources, its radical policies, and the prevailing attitudes of the electorate, and not conservative in any useful sense – is ever pushing – successfully so – towards more tension and conflict – inequality of rights, prosperity, armaments, power, interventionism, erosion of sovereignity and international order – in its pursuit to concentrate power and wealth in ever fewer hands.

    • b. February 7, 2017 at 11:40 am | #

      This “movement” – merely the retainers and proxies of inbred wealth, which in turn is caught in a feedback loop of self-reinforcing “compound interest” accretion of power, to the inevitable detriment of competence, and without sustainability – is not facing any organized opposition from the increasing number of victims – too much “left” to loose – but it is facing the so-misnamed “liberal bias” of reality.

      • b. February 7, 2017 at 11:40 am | #

        The “American [Wealthy’s] Way Of Life” is powered by high EROEI fossil fuel, which is in decline. If it were not, the CO2 pollution resulting from its use would eventually make much of this planet uninhabitable for human beings. It is an article of the One True Faith of the “conservative movement” kabuki that this cannot be The Case.

        • b. February 7, 2017 at 11:46 am | #

          TL;DR: the absence of any effective opposition – capable e.g. of a general strike, e.g. in the voting booth – is not an issue. The “conservative movement” and its bought representatives from either party no longer need a “Left”, if they ever did. They are now poised to stand against entropy itself, in defiant rejection of physics and common sense, athwart history, yelling “forward!”

Leave a Reply