The trippy Peggy Noonan, painted here with Ronald Reagan. / Gage Skidmore

That Peggy Noonan Feeling

Clueless pundit nets prestigious laurel from clueless prize panel

The trippy Peggy Noonan, painted here with Ronald Reagan. / Gage Skidmore
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Even in comparatively normal times, the solemn and prestigious rites of journalists feting each other for their historic work tend to undermine the skeptical and irreverent sensibility that all good journalism demands. And at worst, such spectacles run the gamut from the pompous to the surreal.

Yes, I’m talking about Peggy Noonan here—the Wall Street Journal columnist who, by the considered judgment of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize Board, represents the summit of commentary in my dying profession. As a thinker, Noonan is a curious mashup of the Red Queen and the White Rabbit—someone prone to alarmist end-times visions even as she moves around the world in a fog of unremitting, faintly contemptuous privilege. As a writer, Noonan resembles Henry Luce coming off a bad acid trip —i.e., she’s prone to a kind of overripe, endlessly suggestible brand of hallucination-in-prose that gets briskly projected onto the American civitas at large.

In one very broad sense, Noonan’s idiosyncratic skill set served her well over this past election cycle, as the country’s conservative party of business succumbed to a trade-baiting, immigrant-bashing Guignol of pseudo-populist hate. Of all prestige news outlets, the Wall Street Journal—which famously proposed a five-word constitutional amendment reading “There shall be open borders”—was least equipped to process the Trump insurgency. And Noonan—who, back in the day, defected from the Democratic union politics of her birth family to become a Reagan speechwriter—was as close to an oracle of genuine white working-class resentment as the Murdoch-owned investors’ broadsheet was going to come.

As a thinker, Noonan is a curious mashup of the Red Queen and the White Rabbit.

But even with this fistful of generous disclaimers firmly in hand, it must be conceded that Noonan’s 2016 election commentary is excruciatingly, preposterously bad. It’s true that she divined early on that Trump’s candidacy was kryptonite to the GOP political establishment—and unlike many members of the conservative commentariat, she understood that Trump had a real shot at winning the presidency. 

Beyond that, however, Noonan’s efforts to divine the spirit of unrest in the Republican base wavered between the condescending and the dimwitted. As she sought to characterize the splintering of the GOP rank-and-file, she hit upon the notion that Trump supporters were “the unprotected”—a growing cohort of white working America that “suffered from illegal immigration” and the policy disconnect arising from the rise of an amoral ruling elite. (Never mind that illegal immigration has actually been declining for years, which renders the alleged economic hardships associated with it pretty much moot.) 

But never mind. As the plucky column reader plunges on, it soon becomes clear—to the extent that anything in the Noonanverse can ever be so designated—that the only actual policy demand she imagines this hard-pressed group yearning for—apart from ill-specified curbs on immigration—turns out to be a pet cause of the same ultra-privileged establishment that’s dictated GOP policy for the past generation: the defunding of public education, in favor of massive subsidies for the underperforming charter school movement. As a specimen of pure wall-eyed Noonan-ese, in all its bogus sonorities and non sequitur reasoning, this merits quoting at length:

What marks this political moment, in Europe and the U.S., is the rise of the unprotected. It is the rise of people who don’t have all that much against those who’ve been given many blessings and seem to believe they have them not because they’re fortunate but because they’re better.

You see this dynamic in many spheres. In Hollywood, as we still call it, where they make our rough culture, they are careful to protect their children from its ill effects. In places with failing schools, they choose not to help them through the school liberation movement—charter schools, choice, etc.—because they fear to go up against the most reactionary professional group in America, the teachers unions. They let the public schools flounder. But their children go to the best private schools.

Like many flights of Noonian fancy, this one begins with a flourish of superficial plausibility—there are growing cohorts of aggrieved white have-nots suffering economic neglect (though in the case of Trump’s election, their influence has been considerably exaggerated). And one would have to be willfully blind to deny that the members of our nation’s power elite operate on the assumption that they owe their great riches not to their dumb luck but to their superior personal virtue. However, as we descend to specifics, we see this small sociological aperçu unravel completely. Rough-culture producing Hollywood inexplicably stands in for the exploitative logic of this social dynamic. (Still more inexplicably, she implies that perhaps we shouldn’t be calling it Hollywood at all; perhaps it’s to be rechristened “SchoolTyrannyLand”?) Somehow, the culture lords dwelling in prestigious SoCal enclaves are upbraided for electing not to fund charter schools. (It’s also telling that, amid her visionary transports, Noonan can’t be bothered to say much about what the noble cause of “school liberation” entails: “charter schools, choice, etc”—oh, you know; whatever it is that we’re pawning off on poor families these days.) And the reason for this failure of moral imagination is even more bizarre and recondite: the titans of Hollywood, as we still call it, are terrified of . . . teachers’ unions? It’s a bit like seeing a pet hard-right talking point coming out of the mouth of a faintly astonished Blanche DuBois.

And it’s an especially surreal claim to hang your socioeconomic analysis of Trumpism on, for the simple reason that the Los Angeles school system is the largest open-air experiment in school privatization now going—an initiative that’s all but singlehandedly funded by a single Angeleno billionaire, Eli Broad. Now, it’s true that Broad’s made his fortune in construction and not in the film industry—but he’s a huge arts funder, with an eponymous museum to his name. He’s also a stalwart Democratic party donor, with many cronies and political allies in the film industry.

The titans of Hollywood, as we still call it, are terrified of . . . teachers’ unions?

In other words, Peggy Noonan is describing a political reality that exists only in her eerily echoing cranium, and the Wall Street Journal accepts that as trenchant political analysis. And true to such harum-scarum social observation from our pundit class, Noonan seeks to establish her street bona fides via a real-life encounter with a colorfully ethnic informant. At the outset of this same column, she sternly admonishes her out-of-touch Journal readers with this hard-won nugget of wisdom: 

[I]n my experience any nonpolitical person on the street, when asked who will win, not only knows, but gets a look as if you’re teasing him . . . I had such a conversation again Tuesday with a friend who repairs shoes in a shop on Lexington Avenue. Jimmy asked me, conversationally, what was going to happen. I deflected and asked him who he thought was going to win. “Troomp!” He’s a very nice man, an elderly, old-school Italian-American, but I saw impatience flick across his face: Aren’t you supposed to know about these things?

Aren’t you indeed? Forget Blanche DuBois: this social-realist vignette suggests nothing so much as the Marx Brothers’ flighty and flustered heiress Margaret Dumont abruptly teleported to the set of The Grapes of Wrath. God forbid that Noonan should have stumbled across a LaRouchite or Scientologist on her sojourn down Lexington Avenue; her readers would then be informed that normal, nonpolitical America was waging holy war against Thetans, the Queen of England, or some combination thereof.

This is all drawn from a single Noonan column, mind you, at the height of the GOP primary wars last summer. But if you examine any of the Noonan offerings singled out for praise by the Pulitzer panel, you’ll find much the same jumpy and suggestible diagnoses of the ailing American body politic. In one, she gamely tries to defend the media from the charge that the cable news industry jumpstarted the Trump insurgency, then interrupts herself midway to announce to her patient readers just as they had to feel a migraine coming on, “My, that wasn’t much of a defense, was it?” In another outing on the GOP’s institutional meltdown she reels postelection scenarios—and a bevy of mixed metaphors—that seem as though they’ve been dictated into her iPhone in the midst of a fever dream: “Even if the party stays together with a Trump win, it will have been reconstituted. Yes, it will be a formal and proactive [sic] foe of illegal immigration, and it will rethink its approach to entitlements, but it will be other things. What? We are in uncharted territory. But the point is fissures and tensions simmering and growing for 15 years burst through, erupted.” And still another election dispatch on “That Moment When 2016 Hits You” dissolves with our Trump-movement whisperer succumbing to a series of convulsive sobs as she listens to a crappy Paul Simon song, “The Boy in the Bubble”.

To that, I truly have nothing to add. Enjoy your laurels, Ms. Noonan, and Rupert Murdoch! I’ll raise a drink to you as I queue up some Art Garfunkel.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

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