Looking back at my holiday posts, I realize I did nothing but whine for two weeks (Eeyore was, after all, a donkey). So enough of that. Like many of you, no doubt, I caught up a bit on my reading, and also got a few new books for Christmas. By far the most enjoyable holiday read was an advance copy of Michael Kazin’s new biography of William Jennings Bryan, A Godly Hero. I’ve written an extensive review of the book for The Washington Monthly‘s next issue. But suffice it to say that I recommend it highly, especially to those self-styled populists of the Left and Right who claim parts of Bryan’s heritage while ignoring aspects of the Commoner’s thinking that don’t fit into their own ideologies. Like a lot of sports junkies, I asked for and received the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia under the Christmas tree. And I suspect a lot of said junkies shared my reaction to the tome: it’s fun at first, but gets boring pretty fast. Sure, it’s a handy reference book for resolving arguments, but who really wants to sit around reading box scores of every bowl game in history; statistical summaries of every season; or team schedules from time immemorial? The essays that begin and end the book are pretty sketchy, and the individual team histories generally read like they were written by Sports Information Directors for the schools involved. Probably the most interesting general tidbit is the section in each team history about how they acquired their nicknames and mascots. In other words, it’s a fine book to keep in the W.C. I always get at least one theological book for Christmas, and this year’s selection was Kevin Irwin’s May 2005 offering, Models of the Eucharist. It’s a useful if somewhat frustrating study: useful because Irwin exhaustively examines the truth underlying a variety of historical and contemporary understandings of the central ritual of (non-evangelical) Christianity; frustrating because the book’s design as an official Roman Catholic textbook gives it a didactic tone that undercuts its scope of inquiry. Still, if you’re interested in this topic, Irwin’s book belongs on the same shelf with Dom Gregory Dix’s seminal The Shape of the Liturgy, and the playful post-Vatican II classic, Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing.In an earlier post I lifted a quote from another book I finished reading over the holidays: Eamon Duffy’s Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes. Duffy manages to pull off a credible and readable history of two thousand years of papal development in just 317 pages, and is particularly good on the tangled legacy of the Renaissance Popes and the internal Church tensions that produced the First Vatican Council and the doctrine of papal infallibility. Given his unhappiness with the authoritarian strain of Pope John Paul II’s reign (the book was published in 1997), you have to wonder if Duffy will produce a revised edition assessing the significance of Joseph Ratzinger’s election as Benedict XVI. (Disclosure: I’m a big fan of Duffy’s work on the Tudor Reformation, especially The Stripping of the Altars. And one of my favorite memories was the opportunity I had a couple of years ago to sit next to Duffy at High Table at Cambridge’s Magdalen College, while I was there to participate in a panel discussion of neoconservatism). The last book I undertook as 2005 waned was a golden oldie which I retrieved from a dusty bookshelf at home: Gore Vidal’s 1973 novel, Burr.Anyone who just thinks of Vidal as a cranky conspiracy theorist, a media hound, or the purveyor of tawdry novels like Myra Breckinridge, should definitely read Burr and its equally delightful sequel, 1876. These books stand alone as historical fiction of the highest order.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
Reading through the ambiguous to vaguely positive remarks made by Republican pols about the historic auto workers strike, one of them jumped off the page, and I wrote about it at New York:
One of the great anomalies of recent political history has been the disconnect between the Republican Party’s ancient legacy as the champion of corporate America and its current electoral base, which relies heavily on support from white working-class voters. The growing contradiction was first made a major topic of debate in the 2008 manifesto Grand New Party, in which youngish conservative intellectuals Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam argued that their party offered little in the way of material inducements (or even supportive rhetoric) to its emerging electoral base. Though Douthat and Salam were by no means fans of Donald Trump, the mogul’s stunningly successful 2016 campaign did follow their basic prescription of pursuing the economic and cultural instincts of white working-class voters at the expense of doctrinaire free-market and limited-government orthodoxy.
So it’s not surprising that Trump and an assortment of other Republicans have expressed varying degrees of sympathy for the unionized autoworkers who just launched a historic industry-wide strike for better wages and working conditions. But there was a conspicuous, even anachronistic exception among nationally prominent GOP politicians: South Carolina senator and presidential candidate Tim Scott. As NBC News reported:
“It’s the latest of several critical comments Scott has made about the autoworkers, even as other GOP presidential candidates steer clear of criticizing them amid a strike at three plants so far …
“’I think Ronald Reagan gave us a great example when federal employees decided they were going to strike. He said, you strike, you’re fired. Simple concept to me. To the extent that we can use that once again, absolutely.’”
Scott’s frank embrace of old-school union bashing wouldn’t have drawn much notice 40 or 50 years ago. And to be clear, other Republicans aren’t fans of the labor movement: For the most part, MAGA Republicans appeal to the working class via a mix of cultural conservatism, economic and foreign-policy nationalism, nativism, and producerism (i.e., pitting private-sector employers and employees against the financial sector, educational elites, and those dependent on public employment or assistance). One particularly rich lode of ostensibly pro-worker rhetoric has been to treat environmental activism as inimical to the economic growth and specific job opportunities wage earners need.
So unsurprisingly, Republican politicians who want to show some sympathy for the autoworkers have mostly focused on the alleged threat of climate-change regulations generally and electric vehicles specifically to the well-being of UAW members, as Politico reported:
“’This green agenda that is using taxpayer dollars to drive our automotive economy into electric vehicles is understandably causing great anxiety among UAW members,’ [Mike Pence] said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“Other Republicans followed suit, with a National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson calling out Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin — Democrats’ favored candidate for the state’s open Senate seat — for her Thursday vote allowing state-level limits or bans on gas-powered cars as choosing her ‘party over Michigan.'”
More strikingly, Trump, the 2024 presidential front-runner, is planning to hold an event with Michigan workers at the very moment his GOP rivals are holding their second debate next week, notes the Washington Post:
“While other Republican candidates participate in the Sept. 27 event in California, Trump instead plans to speak to more than 500 autoworkers, plumbers, electricians and pipe-fitters, the adviser said. The group is likely to include workers from the United Auto Workers union that is striking against the Big Three automakers in the country’s Rust Belt. The Trump adviser added that it is unclear whether the former president will visit the strike line.
“Trump’s campaign also created a radio ad, to run on sports- and rock-themed stations in Detroit and Toledo, meant to present him as being on the side of striking autoworkers, the adviser said.”
There’s no evidence Trump has any understanding of, much less sympathy with, the strikers’ actual demands. But in contrast to Scott’s remarks endorsing the dismissal of striking workers, it shows that at least some Republicans are willing (rhetorically, at least) to bite the hand that feeds in the pursuit of votes.
Meanwhile, the mainstream-media types who often treat Scott as some sort of sunny, optimistic, even bipartisan breath of fresh air should pay some attention to his attitude toward workers exercising long-established labor rights he apparently would love to discard. Yes, as a self-styled champion of using taxpayer dollars to subsidize private- and homeschooling at the expense of “government schools,” Scott is constantly attacking teachers unions, just like many Republicans who draw a sharp distinction between public-sector unions (BAD!) and private-sector unions (grudgingly acceptable). But autoworkers are firmly in the private sector. Maybe it’s a South Carolina thing: Scott’s presidential rival and past political ally Nikki Haley (another media favorite with an unmerited reputation as a moderate) famously told corporate investors to stay out of her state if they intended to tolerate unions in their workplaces. For that matter, the South Carolina Republican Party was for years pretty much a wholly owned subsidiary of violently anti-union textile barons. Some old habits die hard.
One of the useful by-products of the current wave of labor activism in this country is that Republicans may be forced to extend their alleged sympathy for workers into support for policies that actually help them and don’t simply reflect cheap reactionary demagoguery aimed at foreigners, immigrants, and people of color. But Scott has flunked the most basic test threshold compatibility with the rights and interests of the working class.