The other day in the comments, there was a brief exchange about the difference between people that do things and people that say things. Nixon used to divide the political world into those in the arena and those who talked about those in the arena. He even wrote a book about it. This is the same formulation you see in sports. Athletes complain all the time about the press, pointing out that few of them ever played the game at any level, so they can only imagine what it is like to be a player.
Another way to think of it, one that I prefer, is the 18th century salon, where men in elaborate costumes boasted to elaborately costumed women about what they would do if they were ever called to action. These were the guys who were “well schooled” in the art of war, but never made it out to camp, much less a battle. Meanwhile, out on the streets, men of action did the hard work of civilization, including the defense of it. These men had no use for theory because they were judged and they judged others by deeds. Doers versus talkers.
As with all models, it is an artificial construct used to better understand the world. George Washington was both a doer and talker. In fact, he was probably better at talking than war fighting. Washington was not a very good general, but he had a knack for saying the perfect thing at the perfect time in order to get other men to act. Most modern politicians do nothing but talk so calling them doers is a bit of a stretch. Paul Ryan, for example, has spent his life in Washington politics. The only thing he has ever done is promote himself up the ladder of party politics.
Even so, The model of the doer versus the talker is a useful one for understanding the world today. A century ago, almost all men in America were doers. In fact, it was hard to be anything but a doer. Even politicians started out as lawyers or businessmen. The scions of rich men could skip the doing and get to the talking, but there was not much of it. Status for men was tied to deeds so even rich guys joined the military, got into business or argued cases before the court. 32 US Presidents had some military experience.
Today, few of our politicians have ever done anything resembling useful work. Those who did some time in the service were almost always JAG officers, meaning the greatest danger they faced was a paper cut. The commentariat is even more divorced from the world of deeds. Look up the resumes of these folks and you see nothing but stops in think tanks and media jobs. Some spent time in government. As Tucker Carlson put it, these are stupid rich kids largely clueless about the world in which the rest of us live.
The American ruling class now resembles that salon where oddly costumed people engage in elaborate ritualized competitions. Deeds mean nothing, because no one does anything in the conventional sense. Instead, status is achieved by accumulating credentials, occupying government positions and winning verbal jousts with the other members of the meritocracy. Barack Obama is in the White House entirely due to his ability to talk about doing stuff. The meritocracy admires him so much, because he is one of them.
It’s also why all sides of the chattering class are in a lather over Donald Trump. He is not a member of the talking class. For all his faults, he is a man, who does things. He has risen to the top of a rough and tumble field that only rewards doers, particularly doers who like risk. Every day of Trump’s life has been about winning deals and making things happen. While Barack Obama has a trophy case full of participation medals, Trump has a trophy room celebrating the buildings he has built and the casinos he started. He even has a trophy wife and a trophy ex-wife.
There’s another aspect to this. In a world in which deeds count for nothing, words count for everything. Every sentence is packed with multiple layers of meaning, because there are no other ways to signal status, piety, achievement and so forth. The great athlete does not have to be a wordsmith because everyone know his status. The guys talking about the great athletes have to establish status by words. The guys talking about guys talking about guys talking about the great athletes are in a world where every comma carries great import.
A guy like Trump, who lacks these verbal skills, is an easy target of mockery from the talking class. The coin of Trump’s realm has no value in the world of modern American politics. Guys like Trump are supposed to write checks and remain silent. In the view of the meritocracy, Trump is a crude vulgarian. He is poor in the things they value most, even though he is rich in deeds. To make matters worse, Trump seems to get this and take some pleasure in vexing these people. He does not respect them and they know it.
It’s easy to admire men of action, but history is full of such men, who came to bad ends. Politics has always been about words at some level. George Washington’s political acumen counted for more than his military prowess. Conversely, the British generals he faced, lacked the political savvy to take advantage of their superiority in arms and material. Similarly, Trump’s stumbles in the game of words could very well unhorse him in the fight against someone’s wife. It’s why the talkers are so invested in his defeat. For most of them, it will be the only thing they have ever done.