Without U.S. markets to watch or nice weather to indulge in, I spent the first part of my day like many of you: curiously watching the funeral of George H.W. Bush.
It made for a very weird morning, this forced "quiet" shoved into our breaking broken news, crisis-riddled, perma-chaos new normal. Watching the most powerful living Americans gathered in a cathedral to pretend en masse that there is enough equanimity and grace left in American life to transcend the bitter batshit rancor that permeates the real America outside that cathedral was enough to make someone say something crazy.
NY Times Op-Ed columnist Ross Douthat knows what I'm talking about...
I think you can...describe Bush nostalgia as a longing for something America used to have and doesn’t really any more — a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today.
Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.
Douthat goes on to say, well, a lot. The most basic reading being that WASPs remain America's rightful ruling class and that if not for the toxic mix of increased American diversity and the inherent divine humility of WASPs themselves, they would still be in charge of our grand American experiment, governing austerely from what used to be the center-right. Our failure to find more WASPs to run America, or at least adopt their starched collar version of Greenwich altruism is what ails the American body politic. What we need, Douthat seems to argue, is a Yale-educated bottle of gin filled with crudités to put on a Paul Stuart suit and take control of these United States.
Unsurprisingly, Douthat's column is being met with a mix of condemnation and awe...at how tone-deaf it is. The response is understandable considering how Douthat manages to blithely ignore what the "W" stands for in WASP, and how it infects and contorts any conceivably solid argument that touches it.
That said, my response to Douthat's column was a bit different than most, and it remained so after five readings: I feel like I might tacitly agree with what I think Douthat is trying to say, even if I rather vehemently disagree with many details of his thesis and the majority of his reasoning.
I have never met Ross Douthat and know next to nothing about him other than what's in his columns, the primary of those being that Douthat is a year older than me, was raised Catholic in New Haven, Connecticut where he attended an elite private prep school before heading off to Harvard. I am an Irish Catholic who grew up in what was then a still-WASPy enclave in Brooklyn and attended a small private college in Vermont. Like Douthat, I'm an assimilated WASP. I grew up around WASPs and was educated alongside them. I am fluent in their language and practices; I grew up playing Squash, summered on Martha's Vineyard, enjoy the taste of gin, and feel extremely uncomfortable sharing this kind of personal information with any of you people. People like Douthat and I probably understand WASPs better than they understand themselves since we've spent much our lives acutely aware of how to fit in amongst them, and that makes me want to hug Ross rather than condemn him. This blisteringly bad hot take is simply someone mistaking assimilation for love.
In that context, I can at least comprehend Douthat's longing for the aloof, mannered and performatively moralistic leadership that Douthat seems to be mourning with the passing of our 41st President. Guys like Douthat and I were comfortable with a guy like George H.W. Bush in the White House because we grew up around men like him and it just made sense. Growing up around WASPs makes it easy to understand that service and charity are a large part of the ideals instilled in WASPy communities. As Douthat writes, there is a potent strain of almost forced humility that runs through WASP culture, a sense of giving back in order to offset any perception of elitism or avarice that are also intrinsically part of WASPy elitism. Men like Bush 41 personified the benign version of someone to whom much is given and from whom even more is expected. When contrasting his life with what we have in the White House now, it's a...calming comparison.
But that hidebound, overly simplistic imagery of WASPs as benighted rulers is so calming to guys like me and Ross Douthat that I'm shocked he didn't notice it's such obvious bullshit. After all, what kind of Catholic doesn't question an idea that makes him existentially comfortable? A WASPy one.
Douthat's thesis that Bush 41 was the last president who behaved with genteel care for the office while also making effort to build consensus in Congress is so flawed as to be self-satire. Yes, the presidency has been beset by scandal and partisan enmity since Bill Clinton seduced an intern, and it has reached a dangerous peak in the surreal Trump administration, but it's staggeringly convenient that Douthat conveniently ignores that George W. Bush [coincidentally also a WASP] oversaw eight years of bitter partisanship in the Oval Office while Barack Obama [decidedly not a WASP] was criticized by his own party for being too cool and too bipartisan while also making too many concessions to repair American diplomacy after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Douthat argues in his column that if WASPs themselves must be relegated to the dustbin of history, we should at least create a new ruling class that adopts the altruism, elitism and global citizenry that WASPs cultivated at their country clubs, prep schools, and Ivy League schools. But based on Douthat's bigger argument, it seems like the first black [and Harvard-educated] president was maybe too WASPy for his own good. The Obamas were supposed to be the first iteration of the next ruling class, but voters rejected that ascension by hoisting the Obama legacy on the very petard that Douthat is celebrating as the future of American leadership.
The central problem with Douthat's column [other than the tacit bigotry] is that he's subjectively yearning for a return to a time that he thinks was objectively worthy of nostalgia. I can empathize with Douthat because I also feel organically comfortable under political regimes dominated by the cautious noblesse-oblige of other privileged, white goyishe men beholden to a credo that ensures I remain safe and comfortable. But he and I should probably take a moment to realize that an entire generation of Americans don't give a shit about our comfort, hate the status quo and don't know what a WASP even is. If Ross needs a tip on how to do this, he should just do what I do and take a little time each day to Google "Brett Kavanaugh."
Douthat is the target of a lot of righteous internet rage today, and I want to be clear that this is not more of the same. I think his column is full of ideas and nuanced thinking, but it's achingly personal while attempting to be something prescriptive. Being able to see the former makes me that much more disappointed in the latter because I would have hoped that being a fellow assimilated WASP would allow Ross Douthat the clarity to see that the WASP brand sucks these days.
And if Douthat is disturbed by that reality, I would like to remind him that this is why the white male God of WASPs created gin.