Timothy Snyder Speaks, ep. 7: The Evil of America First

“America First” brings both political weakness and moral hazard. The last episode was about America’s new weakness in the world. This one is about how “America First” leads Americans to turn against one another.

The Who-Can-Beat Trump Test Leads to Kamala Harris

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.

Marianne Williamson Knows How to Beat Trump

We need an uprising of decency.

If only …

If only Donald Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over whether private health insurance should be illegal. If only Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over who was softest on crime in the 1990s. If only Trump were not president, we could have a nice argument about the pros and cons of NAFTA.

But Trump is president, and this election is not about those things. This election is about who we are as a people, our national character. This election is about the moral atmosphere in which we raise our children.

Trump is a cultural revolutionary, not a policy revolutionary. He operates and is subtly changing America at a much deeper level. He’s operating at the level of dominance and submission, at the level of the person where fear stalks and contempt emerges.

He’s redefining what you can say and how a leader can act. He’s reasserting an old version of what sort of masculinity deserves to be followed and obeyed. In Freudian terms, he’s operating on the level of the id. In Thomistic terms, he is instigating a degradation of America’s soul.

Decent Men Don’t Do These Things

If, despite Ms. Blasey’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed, I hope someone in the Senate will use the word “decency” similarly, in a way that makes plain what he or she believes a man can do to a woman without damaging his reputation: “Brett Kavanaugh may have held down a 15-year-old girl and made her fear she was going to die, but Brett Kavanaugh is a decent man. Brett Kavanaugh may have humiliated a woman by forcing his penis into her face, but Brett Kavanaugh is a decent man.”

The Full-Spectrum Corruption of Donald Trump

It is a stunning turnabout. A party that once spoke with urgency and apparent conviction about the importance of ethical leadership — fidelity, honesty, honor, decency, good manners, setting a good example — has hitched its wagon to the most thoroughly and comprehensively corrupt individual who has ever been elected president. Some of the men who have been elected president have been unscrupulous in certain areas — infidelity, lying, dirty tricks, financial misdeeds — but we’ve never before had the full-spectrum corruption we see in the life of Donald Trump.

.. And the moral indictment against Mr. Trump is obvious and overwhelming. Corruption has been evident in Mr. Trump’s private and public life,

  • in how he has treated his wives,
  • in his business dealings and scams,
  • in his pathological lying and cruelty,
  • in his bullying and shamelessness,
  • in his conspiracy-mongering and appeals to the darkest impulses of Americans. (Senator Bob Corker, a Republican, refers to the president’s race-based comments as a “base stimulator.”)

Mr. Trump’s corruptions are ingrained, the result of a lifetime of habits. It was delusional to think he would change for the better once he became president.

.. Some of us who have been lifelong Republicans and previously served in Republican administrations held out a faint hope that our party would at some point say “Enough!”; that there would be some line Mr. Trump would cross, some boundary he would transgress, some norm he would shatter, some civic guardrail he would uproot, some action he would take, some scheme or scandal he would be involved in that would cause large numbers of Republicans to break with the president. No such luck. Mr. Trump’s corruptions have therefore become theirs. So far there’s been no bottom, and there may never be.

.. the Republican Party’s as-yet unbreakable attachment to Mr. Trump is coming at quite a cost. There is the rank hypocrisy, the squandered ability to venerate public character or criticize Democrats who lack it, and the damage to the white Evangelical movement, which has for the most part enthusiastically rallied to Mr. Trump and as a result has been largely discredited.

.. Mr. Trump and the Republican Party are right now the chief emblem of corruption and cynicism in American political life, of an ethic of might makes right. Dehumanizing others is fashionable and truth is relative. (“Truth isn’t truth,” in the infamous words of Mr. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.) They are stripping politics of its high purpose and nobility.

.. A warning to my Republican friends: The worst is yet to come. Thanks to the work of Robert Mueller — a distinguished public servant, not the leader of a “group of Angry Democrat Thugs” — we are going to discover deeper and deeper layers to Mr. Trump’s corruption. When we do, I expect Mr. Trump will unravel further as he feels more cornered, more desperate, more enraged; his behavior will become ever more erratic, disordered and crazed.

Most Republicans, having thrown their MAGA hats over the Trump wall, will stay with him until the end. Was a tax cut, deregulation and court appointments really worth all this?

The Proper Response to Roseanne—and to Trump

This was not the first time that Barr has trafficked in social-media racism or directed a simian comparison at an African-American closely connected to the Obama Administration. She has also directed anti-Semitic barbs at George Soros and promoted conspiracy theories pushed by the far left and the far right.

.. Donald Trump, who congratulated Roseanne for her high ratings, said nothing about the egregious racism that led to the show’s cancellation. He did, however, deploy his own hallucinatory sense of victimization. Why, he asked, had ABC not apologized for the “HORRIBLE” things it has said about him? That statement functioned on two levels: first, in implying that the network had tolerated equivalent offenses when directed at him, he deflected the idea that Roseanne had done anything beyond bounds.

.. The second level of Trump’s remark was that, in pointing to his own wounds, he resorted to the aged, reactionary cliché that the real racists are not bigoted whites but, rather, black people who point out said bigotry.

.. She had initially told her more than eight hundred thousand followers not to defend her, but they seem to have persuaded her after all that she had been wronged. “You guys,” she told them, “make me feel like fighting back.”

.. Bee apologized, conceding that her joke had “crossed a line.” Her apology, though, served to highlight the chasm between her contrition and the complete absence of the concept in Trump’s public behavior.

.. Has his antagonism toward norms freed his opponents to flout those same rules, or is it more important than ever that they be upheld?

.. whether Al Franken should have been pushed to resign, given that Trump himself has been accused of far worse behavior

.. Michelle Obama famously noted that “when they go low, we go high,”

.. The question, among hundreds that arose in response to the 2016 election, is, How does that work out in real life?

.. Emily Nussbaum has pointed out, Trump’s insult-comic persona allowed him to portray the groups and the individuals whom he was attacking as dour, humorless marks, who were so fixated on his demise that they treated his jokes as policy statements.

.. The flip side of this has been Trump’s own gossamer-skinned inclinations, the way that he consistently complains about “unfairness” in his Twitter rhetoric. To the outsider, he appears as the classic bully, capable of dishing it out, incapable of taking it.

.. To the truest of his believers, however, he is cast in heroic terms, pointing out his wounds to show how deeply he has suffered on their behalf—a vulgar Jesus showing off his stigmata at the golf club.

.. It has become common to cast Trump as hostile toward democracy, but his hostilities, like his appetites, are far more basic. They are not aimed at undermining democracy but the norms of decency and accountability that make democracy possible.

.. That Roseanne Barr seems to have decided that maybe she was wronged only affirms the wisdom of ABC’s decision. The threat is not that Trumpism will destroy our sense of decency but rather that it may goad Americans into doing it for him.

The Force of Decency Awakens

A funny thing is happening on the American scene: a powerful upwelling of decency.

.. You can see the abrupt turn toward decency in the rise of the #MeToo movement; in a matter of months ground that had seemed immovable shifted, and powerful sexual predators started facing career-ending consequences.

.. You can see it in the reactions to the Parkland school massacre.

.. Even the huge anti-Trump demonstrations just after Inauguration Day didn’t seem to move the conventional wisdom. But those pink pussy hats may have represented the beginning of real social and political change.

.. Political scientists have a term and a theory for what we’re seeing on #MeToo, guns and perhaps more: “regime change cascades.”

.. When people see the status quo as immovable, they tend to be passive even if they are themselves dissatisfied. Indeed, they may be unwilling to reveal their discontent, or to fully admit it to themselves. But once they see others visibly taking a stand, they both gain more confidence in their dissent and become more willing to act on it — and by their actions they may induce the same response in others, causing a kind of chain reaction.

.. Examples include

  1. the revolutions that swept Europe in 1848,
  2. the sudden collapse of communism in 1989 and
  3. the Arab Spring of 2011.

.. nothing says that such cascades have to be positive either in their motivations or in their results. The period 2016-17 clearly represented a sort of Alt-Right Spring — springtime for fascists? — in which white supremacists and anti-Semites were emboldened

  1. not just by Donald Trump’s election but by the
  2. evidence that there were more like-minded people than anyone realized, both in the U.S. and Europe.

.. historians have described 1848 as a turning point where history somehow failed to turn: At the end of the day the old, corrupt regimes were still standing.

.. far too much power rests in the hands of men who are simply bad people.

.. his growing backlash is not just its vileness, but its lameness.

.. Trump’s response to Parkland — let’s arm teachers! — wasn’t just stupid, it was cowardly, an attempt to duck the issue

.. Missouri G.O.P. has responded to the indictment of Gov. Eric Greitens, accused of trying to blackmail his lover with nude photos: by blaming … George Soros

.. They’ve pretty much given up on making any substantive case for their ideas in favor of rants about socialists trying to take away your freedom.

.. it’s also kind of whiny; it’s what people sound like when they know they’re losing the argument.

.. the U.S. electoral system is in effect rigged in favor of Republicans

.. Democrats will need to win the popular vote by something like seven percentage points to take the House.