For D.C.’s Grover Norquist, a funny thing happened on the way to the bathtub. (Courtesy of Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The View From Today’s Versailles

A new book by Michelle Fields, former Breitbart reporter, rightly skewers our political class—but suffers from a case of hypocrisy

BY Chris Lehmann

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'Our nation’s capital has become a modern Versailles—where arrogance and corrupt self-dealing are the norm, and where the governing class has completely lost touch with the governed.'

If anyone’s earned the right to inveigh against the grotesque privileges of today’s Washington elites, it’s Michelle Fields, the Breitbart News reporter manhandled by Donald Trump’s thuggish chief of staff, Corey Lewandowski, at a Florida fundraiser. The encounter prompted Fields to file criminal charges (since dismissed) and to resign her post at Breitbart, which has been functioning as an all-but-official PR arm of the Trump campaign. (She’s now at the Huffington Post.)

Fields’ new book, Barons of the Beltway: Inside the Princely World of Our Washington Elite—and How to Overthrow Them, features a reader’s note about the Lewandowski contretemps, but it’s chiefly a red-meat digest of federal corruption that ticks off the talking points of the far Right, from the (nonexistent) plague of runaway government to the outrage that is the estate tax.

Donald Trump makes no appearance outside the reader’s note, but Fields devotes half a chapter to the corrupt career of Jeb Bush, under the now-preposterous premise that the 2016 candidate is the likely “heir to the presidency.” It’s hard not to see such reporting as a reflection of the Breitbart organization’s smash-the-establishment-andcoronate-Trump mandate.

Still, for all its lurches into dogma and electioneering, Barons is not bad. Fields has an eye for the titanic self-regard, workaday corruption and shameless hypocrisy of D.C.’s permanent government. It’s bracing to revisit, for example, Jeb’s tawdry private-sector tour as a (singularly inept) corporateboard ornament and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s scuzzy career in investment banking. After leaving the White House in 1998, Rahm landed, sans any qualifications, a gig as a managing director of Wasserstein Perella & Co. The euphemism for his specialty there was “relationship banking.” One of his first acts was to recruit Clinton mega-donor Bernard Schwartz’s firm for his account. After two-and-a-half years of effort-free power networking, Emanuel walked away with $18.5 million. A fine apprenticeship for the heir to the Daley machine.

As these case studies pile up, you can’t help but assent to Fields’ view that “our nation’s capital has become a modern Versailles—where arrogance and corrupt self-dealing are the norm, and where the governing class has completely lost touch with the governed.”

Unfortunately, Barons is ultimately a frustrating jeremiad. That’s not so much because Fields puts her thumbs on the ideological scale as that her campaign against moneyed corruption in Washington suffers from reliance on the very kinds of D.C. malefactors she professes to disdain. Her final chapter culminates, ludicrously, in an interview with Grover Norquist, head of the agenda-setting lobbying group Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist is not merely another government-basher who nestles on his own gilded perch in D.C. He’s also a prime specimen of hypocritical Washington self-dealing. Norquist narrowly escaped an indictment for his role in Jack Abramoff ’s casino-skimming empire. Instead, he pocketed $1 millionplus in laundered fees, and continued blithely to denounce the excesses of big government corruption to credulous journalists like Fields.

The dismal, unstated moral of Barons is that the eminently justified denunciation of Washington’s incestuous class of on-the-make grandees has morphed into a cynical meta-racket of its own.

And the band plays on. A money-driven campaign system procured the reckless deregulation of the financial sector under Bill Clinton that led to the 2008 crash. Big-money interests then cynically sent cash gushing through Washington to finance the Tea Party. The next, predictable, turn of the screw was the Tea Party-enabled congressional majorities sinking into their own sloughs of D.C. corruption.

This process was largely engineered by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity. And one of AFP’s lead enforcers of ideological purity was one Corey Lewandowski. So for all the righteous indignation on display in Barons, the reader is left to wonder how a reporter can overlook the baleful influence of a political putsch that has personally assaulted her. Until, that is, said reader consults the publicity materials for the book, which tout a campaign of “buzz-mailing to Tea Party and libertarian organizations.” 

Chris Lehmann, a contributing editor of In These Times, is editor-in-chief at Baffler and the author of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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