Bringing the energy and hope to stare down Trump and his movement.
Nations, like people, may change somewhat, but not in their essential characteristics. The United States is defined by space and hope. It is an optimistic country of can-do strivers. They took the risk of coming to a new land. They are suspicious of government, inclined to self-reliance. Europeans ask where you came from. Americans ask what you can do.
The Declaration of Independence posited a universal idea, that human beings are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Americans, then, embraced an idea, however flawed in execution, when they became a nation. Their government, whatever else it does, exists to safeguard and further that idea, in the United States and beyond.
President Trump, in the name of making American great again, has trampled on America’s essence. He is angry, a stranger to happiness, angrier still for not knowing the source of his rage. He is less interested in liberty than the cash of his autocratic cronies. As for life, he views it as a selective right, to which the white Christian male has priority access, with women, people of color and the rest of humanity trailing along behind for scraps.
Adherents to an agenda of “national conservatism” held a conference last month in Washington dedicated, as my colleague Jennifer Schuessler put it, “to wresting a coherent ideology out of the chaos of the Trumpist moment.”
Good luck with that. One of the meeting’s leading lights was Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. Lowry’s forthcoming book is called “The Case for Nationalism.” Enough said. The endpoint of that “case” is on display at military cemeteries across Europe.
Nationalism, self-pitying and aggressive, seeks to change the present in the name of an illusory past in order to create a future vague in all respects except its glory. Trump is a self-styled nationalist. The “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” chants at his rallies have chilling echoes.
Lowry holds that “America is not an idea” and to call it so is a “lazy cliché.” This argument denies the essence of the country — an essence palpable at every naturalization ceremony across the United States. Becoming American is a process that involves the inner absorption of the nation’s founding idea.
The gravest thing Trump has done is to empty this idea of meaning. His has been an assault on honesty, decency, dignity, tolerance and civility. On this president’s wish list, every right is alienable. He leads a movement more than he does a nation, and so depends on fear to mobilize people. Any victorious Democratic Party candidate in 2020 has to counter that negative energy with a positive energy that lifts Americans from Trump’s web.
I watched the Democratic Party debates among presidential contenders through a single prism: Who can beat Trump? In the end, nothing else matters because another five and a half years of this will drag Americans into an abyss of moral collapse.
Yes, how far left, how moderate that candidate may be is of some significance, but can he or she bring the heat and the hope to stare Trump down and topple him is all I care about. That’s the bouncing ball all eyes should be on, with no illusions as to how vicious and devious Trump will be between now and November 2020.
With reluctance, because he is a good and honorable man of great personal courage, I do not believe that Joe Biden has the needed energy, mental agility and nimbleness. Nor do I believe that the nation of can-do strivers I described above is ready for Bernie Sanders’s “democratic socialism.” Forms of socialism work in Europe, and the word is widely misunderstood in America, but socialism and America’s essence are incompatible.
Elizabeth Warren’s couching of a campaign for radical change as “economic patriotism” is a much smarter way to go, and her energetic advocacy of ideas to redress the growing injustices in American life has been powerful. Still, I am not convinced that enough Americans are ready to move as far left as she proposes or that she passes the critical commander in chief test.
Kamala Harris does that for me. The California senator is a work in progress, with
- uneven debate performances, and policies, notably health care, that she has zigzagged toward defining. But she’s
- tough, broadly of the center,
- has a great American story, is passionate on issues including immigrants, African-Americans and women, and has
- proved she is not averse to risk. She
- has a former prosecutor’s toughness and the ability to slice through Trump’s self-important bluster.
Last month Harris said Trump was a “predator.” She continued: “The thing about predators you should know, is that they prey on the vulnerable. They prey on those who they do not believe are strong. And the thing you must importantly know, predators are cowards.”
Those were important words. It’s early days, but Trump’s biggest electoral vulnerability is to women. They have seen through his misogyny at last, and they know just where the testosterone of nationalism leads.
In denigrating anyone who called the President out for his slurs, Senators Cotton and Perdue (pictured here in August) show their willingness to humiliate themselves on his behalf.
.. According to the Post, “Three White House officials said Perdue and Cotton told the White House that they heard ‘shithouse’ rather than ‘shithole,’ allowing them to deny the President’s comments on television over the weekend.” Is that how people sleep at night in Trump’s Washington?
And they are poisonous.
.. It should be clear that the house/hole distinction, should it even have existed, would not count as “allowing” Cotton and Perdue to deny the President’s remarks on any terms. But the ones on which they did so are particularly egregious, because they offered themselves as witnesses to other senators’ supposed dishonor.
.. Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, had confirmed the reported phrase “shithole countries” publicly; Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, had backed up the press accounts more obliquely but unmistakably. Senator Tim Scott, his Republican colleague, who is African-American, told reporters that Graham had confirmed the essentials of the report to him; Graham didn’t dispute that. Graham had also publicly said that there was a racial aspect to the remarks, which he said he’d called the President on, saying, by his account, “America is an idea, not a race.”
.. Cotton, appearing on Sunday news programs, specifically disparaged Durbin’s credibility. “I didn’t hear it, and I was sitting no further away from Donald Trump than Dick Durbin was,”
.. Cotton told John Dickerson on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “And I know, and I know what Dick Durbin has said about the President’s repeated statements is incorrect.” He also said that Durbin had a history of dishonesty.
.. When Dickerson asked Cotton about the thrust of the remarks, as opposed to the President’s word choice, Cotton said, “I did not hear derogatory comments about individuals or persons.” Perhaps there was another rationalization in there: he was being derogatory about whole populations, not individuals!
.. in the next sentence, Dickerson made the terms of Cotton’s lies clear when he asked, “So the sentiment is totally phony that is attributed to him?”—meaning to the President. Cotton answered, “Yes.”
.. At the same time, Perdue was busy on ABC’s “This Week,” telling George Stephanopoulos, in even more categorical terms, that Durbin was guilty of a “gross misrepresentation” of Trump’s remarks, saying that such “language” was simply not used.
.. When Stephanopoulos noted that there were multiple sources who said otherwise—indeed, the President himself reportedly called friends to brag about what he had said
.. Congressmen Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, who is the House Majority Leader and has not commented (but, as the Washington Post noted, stood quietly next to the President when he denied the reports on Sunday; Trump also called himself the “least racist person”
.. members of his Administration at first thought that the controversy could be settled in the shady realm of “do not recall,”
.. They were caught by surprise when he started tweeting about how the accounts of his language were outright false.
.. But perhaps he also listened to what the other Republicans were saying, and had an insight that they would, indeed, back him up. It was a bully’s triple play:
- first, he got to slur whole nations.
- Then he got his guys to gang up on anyone who called him out for it, which produced the final prize:
- the acknowledgement that the Republican lawmakers were his guys, subordinate and willing to humiliate themselves on his behalf.
.. What is notable is that, at first, Cotton and Perdue had tried, in a joint statement, to hedge by saying that they did “not recall the President saying these comments specifically.” But, as his lies escalated, so did theirs, to the point where they were backing up the idea that the media was involved in a fake-news conspiracy.
.. But it is, apparently, hard to lie halfway for Trump; he won’t let you.
My parents were Russian Jews who fled the oppression of the Soviet Union and found a haven in the Land of Opportunity.
.. But that didn’t seem to matter much. Until Donald Trump came along.
Last year I experienced the first sustained anti-Semitism I have ever encountered in the United States. Like many other anti-Trump commentators, I was deluged with neo-Nazi propaganda on social media, including a picture of me in a gas chamber, with Herr Trump in a Nazi uniform pulling the lever to kill me. This was accompanied by predictable demands that I leave this country to “real” Americans and go back to where I came from — or, alternatively, to Israel.
.. Trump came to office vilifying Mexicans and Muslims. As president, he has praised the protesters who marched with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville as “very fine people” and come out against taking down Confederate monuments, symbols of white supremacy. He has pardoned former sheriff Joe Arpaio, who became a symbol of racism and lawlessness for locking up Latinos, in defiance of a court order, simply on the suspicion that they might be undocumented immigrants.
.. The result of all this hate-mongering is that for the first time, I no longer feel like a “real” American. I now feel like an outcast, a minority. I’m already a person without a party, having left the GOP after 30 years because of my opposition to Trump and all that he stands for. Increasingly I feel like a Jew, an immigrant, a Russian — anything but a normal, mainstream American.
.. That may be precisely what Trump and his most fervent supporters intend. They are redefining what it means to be an American. The old idea that anyone who embraces America’s ideals can become an American is out.
Is America just ‘an idea’?
The debate centers on whether American values, however they may be defined, are a legacy of the Western heritage or whether America is “an idea,” as Fallows puts it, that transcends any concept of civilization or the people who created it. Indeed, in the Beinart-Fallows view, merely an overly abundant mention of “the West”’ or “our civilization” constitutes a kind of white nationalism or tribalism.
.. Fallows assaults Trump for giving a speech “that minimized the role of ideals in American identity, and maximized the importance of what he called ‘civilization’ but which boils down to ties of ethnicity and blood.”
.. Trump then identified two other threats to the West—first, “the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people”; and second, “powers that seek to test our will, undermine our confidence, and challenge our interests”—a veiled reference to Russia.
.. What’s missing is any recognition of—or certainly any manifest appreciation for—the fundamental elements of the Western heritage: the theology of Christianity; Western artistic painting, employing light and shadow to burst throughs space and time; the soaring Baroque music; the Gothic cathedrals with their relentless drive toward space; the penetrating sense of tragedy in literature; the regard for the individual, for freedom, for carefully crafted government, free expression, and free markets.
.. Samuel Huntington of Harvard, hardly an alt-right provocateur, once wrote, “Some Westerners…have argued that the West does not have problems with Islam but only with violent Islamist extremists. Fourteen hundred years of history demonstrate otherwise.”
.. It was only recently that commentators such as Beinart and Fallows attacked the Western heritage as an impediment to new arrivals being who they want to be, retaining their own cultural sensibilities and impulses while diminishing America’s through numbers and defiance.
.. There are elements within the West bent on destroying any civilizational consciousness because they don’t consider their civilization to be particularly hallowed.
.. I haven’t looked at Fukuyama’s piece since it appeared but if memory serves, he pretty much nailed it. He didn’t say that with Communism defeated, the world was to be conflict-free, just that liberal democracy no longer faced any serious ideological rivals. Islamic fundamentalism, as an ideology, is not a credible challenger to liberal democracy, not in the industrial world or even in the Islamic world. I’m not saying it doesn’t have followers or isn’t a security threat. But it offers nothing to people who aren’t already Muslims or from that part of the world.
Fukuyama was making a more narrow argument than he’s been credited. That end of history business really threw people off.
.. No one in this debate has claimed that American values are not a legacy of Western heritage. But Jefferson didn’t write “all Western men are created equal.” The Declaration is a universalist statement, even though it comes from a specific culture.
The difference between America and pretty much every other nation on Earth, as American presidents used to say on a regular basis, is that America is the only nation on Earth founded on an idea. France, and Germany, and England, and China, and Poland weren’t founded on ideas; they were founded on the basis of ethnic and linguistic ties. The point that Fallows and Beinart were making is that Trump gave no recognition to that at all.
.. Many Americans, perhaps most, hate to see their national and civilizational heritage coming under attack…
As do I. Trump is an attack on our founding ideals. He holds the values and ethics of Western culture in contempt, as a long lifetime of bad conduct and vicious speech make abundantly clear.
Is it really still necessary, some 80 years later, to forswear any use of the word “will” in discussing politics or geopolitics because of this German film? And, if someone uses the term, is that prima facie evidence of fascistic tendencies?
When a speech contains a (completely false) statement that “the fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive” and ends with “and our civilization will triumph,” it’s entirely legitimate to suspect that dog whistles are being used. Someone as loved by the alt-right as is Trump can’t directly quote from a Nazi propaganda film and be considered innocent of having made a deliberate shout-out to the blut-und-boden crowd.
.. The fundamental flaw of the Fukuyama viewpoint, which has been the Bush/Clinton consensus of “globalization” for the last quarter century, is the fictional belief that Western liberal democracy and free market capitalism can exist and spread, divorced from their cultural and civilizational foundations.
And the primary foundation is Christianity. The ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence would never have come into being, or been taken seriously, without the cultural context of Christian teaching. It was not Thomas Jefferson, but Jesus Christ, who first stated that “all men are created equal”.