The decline of discourse in the anti-Trump echo chamber.
Donald Trump is impulse-driven, ignorant, narcissistic and intellectually dishonest. So you’d think that those of us in the anti-Trump camp would go out of our way to show we’re not like him — that we are judicious, informed, mature and reasonable.
But the events of the past week have shown that the anti-Trump echo chamber is becoming a mirror image of Trump himself — overwrought, uncalibrated and incapable of having an intelligent conversation about any complex policy problem.
For example, there’s a complex policy problem at the heart of this week’s Iran episode. Iran is not powerful because it has a strong economy or military. It is powerful because it sponsors militias across the Middle East, destabilizing regimes and spreading genocide and sectarian cleansing. Over the past few years those militias, orchestrated by Qassim Suleimani, have felt free to operate more in the open with greater destructive effect.
We’re not going to go in and destroy the militias. So how can we keep them in check so they don’t destabilize the region? That’s the hard problem — one that stymied past administrations.
In the Middle East, and wherever there are protracted conflicts, nations have a way to address this problem. They use violence as a form of communication. A nation trying to maintain order will assassinate a terrorism leader or destroy a terrorism facility. The attack says: “Hey, we know we’re in a long-term conflict, but let’s not let it get out of hand. That’s not in either of our interests.”
The attack is a way to seize control of the escalation process and set a boundary marker.
These sorts of operations have risks and rewards. A risk is that it won’t cease the escalation, just accelerate it. The radicals on the other side will get enraged and take to the streets. Their leaders will have to appease that rage.
A reward is that maybe you do halt the escalation. The other side implicitly says: “Message received. We’ll do some face-saving things to appease the streets, but we don’t want this to get out of hand, either.” Another reward is that you’ve managed to eliminate an effective terrorist like Soleimani. Talent doesn’t grow on trees.
The decision to undertake this sort of operation is a matter of weighing risk and reward. And after the Soleimani killing, you saw American security professionals talk in the language of balancing risk and reward. Stanley McChrystal, a retired general, and Michael Mullen, a retired admiral, thought it was worth the risk. Susan Rice, a former national security adviser, thought it wasn’t.
But in the anti-Trump echo chamber, that’s not how most people were thinking. Led by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, they avoided the hard, complex problem of how to set boundaries around militias. Instead, they pontificated on the easy question not actually on the table: Should we have a massive invasion of Iran?
A great cry went up from the echo chamber. We’re on the brink of war! Trump is leading us to more endless wars in the Middle East! We’re on the precipice of total chaos! This was not the calibrated language of risk and reward. It was fear-stoking apocalyptic language. By being so overwrought and exaggerated, the echo chamber drowned out any practical conversation about how to stabilize the Middle East so we could have another righteous chorus of “Donald Trump is a monster!”
This is Trump’s ultimate victory. Every argument on every topic is now all about him. Hating Trump together has become the ultimate bonding, attention-grabbing and profit-maximization mechanism for those of us in anti-Trump world. So you get a series of exaggerated fervors —
- the Mueller report!
- The Steele dossier!
— that lead ultimately nowhere.
Most of this week’s argument about the Middle East wasn’t really about the Middle East. It was all narcissistically about ourselves! Democrats defend terrorists! Republicans are warmongers! Actual Iranians are just bit players in our imperialistic soap opera, the passive recipients of our greatness or perfidy.
The world is more complicated than this cartoon. Love or hate him, Trump has used military force less than any other president since Jimmy Carter. When it comes to foreign policy, he is not like recent Republicans. He is, as my colleague Ross Douthat put it, a Jacksonian figure, wanting to get America out of foreign entanglements while lobbing a few long-distance attacks to ensure the crazy foreigners stick to killing one another and not us.
And this is the final paradox. For all the Sturm und Drang that surrounds Trump, populist Republicans and Democrats are gravitating toward the same foreign policy: We’re in the middle of a clash of civilizations; the Middle East is so screwed up, we should just get out; we’re too stupid/ineffective/racist/imperialistic to do any good there anyway.
We fight viciously about Trump, but underneath, a populist left-right curtain is descending around America, separating us from the Mideast, China, even Europe. The real high-risk move is the one both parties are making together: that if we ignore the world it will ignore us. (It won’t.)
Maybe once the Inflammatory One is finally gone from the scene we can have an intelligent conversation about that.
Judge Kavanaugh, when it was his turn, was not laughing. He was yelling. He spent more than half an hour raging against Senate Democrats and the “Left” for “totally and permanently” destroying his name, his career, his family, his life. He called his confirmation process a “national disgrace.”
“You may defeat me in the final vote, but you will never get me to quit,” Judge Kavanaugh said, sounding like someone who suddenly doubted his confirmation to the Supreme Court — an outcome that seemed preordained only a couple of weeks ago.
Judge Kavanaugh’s defiant fury might be understandable coming from someone who believes himself innocent of the grotesque charges he’s facing. Yet it was also evidence of an unsettling temperament in a man trying to persuade the nation of his judicial demeanor.
.. As he put it in his testimony, “What goes around, comes around,” in the partisan vortex that has been intensifying in Washington for decades now. His open contempt for the Democrats on the committee also raised further questions about his own fair-mindedness, and it served as a reminder of his decades as a Republican warrior who would take no prisoners.
.. He gave coy answers when pressed about what was clearly a sexual innuendo in his high-school yearbook.
He insisted over and over that others Dr. Blasey named as attending the gathering had “said it didn’t happen,” when in fact at least two of them have said only that they don’t recall it — and one of them told a reporter that she believes Dr. Blasey.
.. Judge Kavanaugh clumsily dodged a number of times when senators asked him about his drinking habits. When Senator Amy Klobuchar gently pressed him about whether he’d ever blacked out from drinking, he at first wouldn’t reply directly. “I don’t know, have you?” he replied — a condescending and dismissive response to the legitimate exercise of a senator’s duty of advise and consent. (Later, after a break in the hearing, he apologized.)
.. Judge Kavanaugh gave categorical denials a number of times, including, at other points, that he’d ever blacked out from too much drinking. Given numerous reports now of his heavy drinking in college, such a blanket denial is hard to believe.
.. then there’s the fact that she gains nothing by coming forward. She is in hiding now with her family in the face of death threats.
.. cowardice of the committee’s 11 Republicans, all of them men, and none of them, apparently, capable of asking Dr. Blasey a single question.
.. Eventually, as Judge Kavanaugh testified, the Republican senators ventured out from behind their shield. Doubtless seeking to ape President’s Trump style and win his approval, they began competing with each other to make the most ferocious denunciation of their Democratic colleagues and the most heartfelt declaration of sympathy for Judge Kavanaugh, in a show of empathy far keener than they managed to muster for Dr. Blasey.
.. Pressed over and over by Democratic senators, Judge Kavanaugh never could come up with a clear answer for why he wouldn’t also want a fair, neutral F.B.I. investigation into the allegations against him — the kind of investigation the agency routinely performs, and that Dr. Blasey has called for. At one point, though, he acknowledged that it was common sense to put some questions to other potential witnesses besides him.
.. When Senator Patrick Leahy asked whether the judge was the inspiration for a hard-drinking character named Bart O’Kavanaugh in a memoir about teenage alcoholism by Mr. Judge, Judge Kavanaugh replied, “You’d have to ask him.”
Asking Mr. Judge would be a great idea. Unfortunately he’s hiding out in a Delaware beach town and Senate Republicans are refusing to subpoena him.
.. Why? Mr. Judge is the key witness in Dr. Blasey’s allegation. He has said he has no recollection of the party or of any assault. But he hasn’t faced live questioning to test his own memory and credibility. And Dr. Blasey is far from alone in describing Judge Kavanaugh and Mr. Judge as heavy drinkers; several of Judge Kavanaugh’s college classmates have said the same.
.. If the committee will not make a more serious effort, the only choice for senators seeking to protect the credibility of the Supreme Court will be to vote no.