Lessons of ‘Bridge-gate’

The political class is a criminal class

by , January 10, 2014

People talk about "the character issue" in politics, but is there really any other issue when it comes to judging a political candidate? After all, someone may be advocating Peace On Earth and Good Will Toward Men in public, while in private he could very well be hatching demonic schemes of revenge in retaliation for – let’s just say – not endorsing him for reelection. He might even stoop to closing two lanes onto the busiest bridge in the country, resulting in a cataclysmic traffic jam and causing a 91-year-old woman who needed an ambulance to wait for crucial extra minutes before paramedics could reach her. She died soon afterward.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s involvement in what will no doubt be known as "Bridge-gate" is the media mob’s target of the moment, with partisan Democrats pouncing all over it as evidence that the would-be 2016 presidential candidate’s aspirations for higher office are toast. And they may very well be right: but if they are, that isn’t necessarily good news for Democrats. That’s because what Christie and his advisors apparently did – use their authority to punish their enemies without regard for the wider consequences – underscores the utter lawlessness of overweening government power, undercutting the Democrats’ governing philosophy.

A few months ago, Christie engaged in a very public debate with libertarian Republican Sen. Rand Paul, disdaining libertarianism as a "dangerous thought" and opining that the whole issue of government surveillance of American citizens was an "esoteric intellectual debate" of no consequence to hardheaded realists like himself. Such a loose attitude toward the arbitrary exercise of power is perfectly understandable in someone who still insists a plot to exact political revenge at everyone else’s expense was a "traffic study."

In Chris Christie’s world, there are no constraints: stop traffic to get back at a political rival? Spy on Americans? Violate the Constitution? Violate the trust of the people who elected you? You just go right ahead – because you’re Chris Christie, for Pete’s sake! Rules are for the Little People! When you’re a high-ranking member of the political class – when the "donor class" comes begging to you to run for the highest office in the land – the rules don’t apply. You’re exempt – just ask James Clapper.

Christie exemplifies everything that’s wrong with America, not only politically but psychologically: putting aside his "big government conservatism," the man’s a bully. The problem, however, is that America loves a bully. Videos of Christie going ballistic and telling off various of his constituents for daring to question his ultimate wisdom are part of what made him famous – and attractive to the "donor class" as a putative presidential candidate. And while he’s kept his (horrible) foreign policy views relatively close to his vest, so far, if he’ll cause a major traffic jam in his own state to spite a political rival what would he do to spite a rival nation – and what kind of consequences would it augur for the rest of us? I shudder to think about it.

Christie’s apologists are already telling us this will all blow over, that it has nothing to do with issues relevant to the rest of the nation, and that the Governor really didn’t know what his closest top aides were doing. While they’re probably right about Bridge-gate blowing over, the argument that he didn’t know what was going on probably isn’t good for his reputation as a competent administrator. However, the real point is that his behavior is indeed all too relevant to national issues currently confronting us because it epitomizes everything Americans hate and fear about the governing class. This is why 72 percent of Americans, asked what is the biggest threat to the United States, answered their own government.

Imagine President Christie’s NSA chief – say, Christie fan Peter King – rationalizing spying on people who just happened to oppose Christie’s political agenda: why get bogged down in an "esoteric intellectual debate" about the ethics of such an act? Catering to his boss’s vindictiveness – and his own – King wouldn’t hesitate to use whatever information is gleaned from the NSA dragnet to destroy whomever was in his crosshairs. And President Christie, who famously doesn’t involve himself in the Machiavellian plots of his amoral staff, could conceivably imagine himself blameless. After all, it was only an Internet "traffic study."

Bridge-gate tells us everything we need to know about what kind of President the Governor would make – and it isn’t pretty. Aside from his vindictiveness and disregard for ordinary people, Bridge-gate underscores Christie’s penchant for secrecy: the incriminating emails, subpoenaed by a state Assembly panel, are redacted in key parts – especially when it comes to discussing Christie and his role in all this.

This is especially stupid for a supposedly foxy politician like we’re told Christie is: suspicious redactions mean the issue isn’t going away any time soon. The question everyone – including federal prosecutors – will be asking is: do the redacted portions shine light on how much of a part the Governor played in this? What Christie’s advisors did wasn’t just morally reprehensible: it’s a criminal act to engage in political retaliation against the entire population of a town under color of authority. Prosecutors are currently investigating the matter and I wouldn’t be surprised if charges are filed. This would be bad news indeed for the Christie-in-2016 boomlet, as the probe would generate Bridge-gate headlines for many more months – enmeshing the Governor in a public relations quagmire and possibly even ensnaring him in a legal web.

The big irony – and also a big problem for American democracy – is that a candidate probably couldn’t succeed in becoming President unless he or she was imbued with the kind of ruthlessness embodied by the Christie gang. The sheer number of bodies one has to walk over in order to reach the throne ensures that whomever makes it is morally unfit to be entrusted with the fate of 300 million Americans. Our system doesn’t just encourage these characteristics in a political leader, it requires them – as long as they aren’t caught.

If we can sum up the lessons of Bridge-gate, they are, in no particular order:

  1. The rest of the country would be better off if we took up Barry Goldwater’s old suggestion and sawed off the Eastern seaboard.
  2. Chris Christie is a big fat liar.
  3. Karl Rove sure knows how to pick ‘em!
  4. There’s nothing moderate about your archetypal "moderate."
  5. Extremism in defense of moderation is no vice.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

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