Sarah Palin as Daisy Buchanan

Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan

Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan


What do you do if you are a moderate Republican whose party has abandoned you? Perhaps you compare yourself to the jilted Jay Gatsby.

That’s what Ross Douthat of The New York Times did in his most recent column. Douthat is one of the “Reformicons” who are panicking as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz take over the Republican presidential primaries. As Rachel Maddow of MSNBC put it recently, old-time Republicans are like vegetarians at a picnic where the choices are barbecue and brisket.

Last week I wrote about another Reformicon, David Brooks of The New York Times, turning to William Blake to express his abhorrence of Cruz. For Douthat, Sarah Palin, who has just endorsed Donald Trump, is Daisy Buchanan.

Douthat talks about the brief romance he had with Palin after John McCain nominated her as his running mate. His language points to Gatsby:

As a political journalist, you never forget the first time you stop just covering a politician and start identifying with her. The first time you wed your high-minded vision of what politics should be to a real candidate’s perishable breath.

Here’s the original:

He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.

For Gatsby, Daisy represents something that he is never able to put into words but that represents all his vague longings and aspirations.

Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees-he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.

Douthat tries to make his dream more specifically but it may prove just as elusive:

[Fellow Reformicon Riehan Salam and I] thought the party’s opportunity (and the country’s) lay in a kind of socially conservative populism, which would link the family-values language of the religious right to an economic agenda more favorable to the working class than what the Republicans usually had offered.

…in Alaska, there was a young, rising-star governor. She was pro-life, evangelical, a working mom. And her record way up north was reformist in a distinctly nonideological way: She was best known for fighting a corrupt nexus of politicians and the oil-and-gas industry, tackling crony capitalism on behalf of ordinary Alaskans.

In his column, Douthat fully acknowledges how wrong he was (something Gatsby never does). Palin may have the populist credentials, but it is a shallow populism wedded to white identity politics. He calls himself an egghead, by which I assume he means a West Egghead, since that’s would align him with Gatsby and Nick Carraway. The Buchanans live in East Egg.

Douthat continues to dream but his dreams are more moderate that Gatsby’s. Or put another way, maybe the rightwing extremists are the true Gatsbys since they literally believe they can return America to its 1950s past. They won’t listen to reasonable Nick Carraways who advise them to adapt to the 21st century:

“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.

“I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.”

It’s noteworthy that Douthat has shifted from the passionate Gatsby to the cerebral Nick by the end of his column. By echoing the final paragraphs of the novel, like Nick he admits that the dream may be forever beyond his grasp:

Maybe — hopefully — there’s a bridge from Trumpism to a more responsible alternative, as there was between Huey Long and F.D.R. or from George Wallace to Richard Nixon.

But it’s also possible that my fellow eggheads and I are grasping at a dream that’s already slipped behind us — lost back in the land of might-have-beens, where the dark fields of Wasilla roll on under the night.

Here’s Nick’s summary description of Gatsby-like dreamers:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

 Is today’s GOP borne back ceaselessly into the past, fighting the currents of historical and demographic change as they do so? They would be better served if they recognized Daisy for who she really is. Gatsby never does but Nick is more observant. His description of the Buchanans could easily apply to Donald Trump and his surrogate from Wasilla:

I couldn’t forgive him [Tom] or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made. . . .

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