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

Chris LehmannJune 16, 2016

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

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.)

'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.'

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