On September 26, 2019, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam held her first listening session after seventeen weeks of protest. Her government, which had spent the summer nearly incommunicado, had settled on these encounters as a way to heal social divisions and identify the mysterious goals of a movement whose five demands, now that school was back in session, could be recited by any schoolchild.
Writing in a New York Times op-ed titled “Hong Kong, I Am Listening” on the eve of the event, Lam promised that this encounter with the public would be “the first of many community dialogues to air the public’s grievances and identify the issues this society faces.” She reminded readers of her 2017 campaign slogan: ‘We Connect.’
Hong Kongers who wanted to open their hearts to the government were invited to enter a random drawing online. Out of some 20,000 people who applied, 150 were chosen by lot to attend the event, at Queen Elizabeth Stadium (despite the name, a very regular looking building in a residential pocket of Wan Chai). The rest of the city tuned in to watch the session on TV.
Police cordoned off the venue with their usual light touch, blocking a dozen streets to traffic and giving a normally busy neighborhood the feeling of a ghost town. The large municipal pool was closed. An LED notice board on the side of Ammar Mosque blinked its friendly greetings to no one. Protesters who filtered into the area lined up opposite the building, while the usual scrum of press milled around, looking for something dramatic to film.
A subversive element had placed a chair out front, with a note that it was reserved for Carrie Lam. No one sat in it. Two hours before the session started, the street was packed with people hoping for a glimpse of their listening leader.
Police were everywhere. Blue-jacketed media liaisons (meant to be the kindler, gentler face of the Hong Kong police force) admonished everyone to stay on the sidewalk. Every so often a red taxi parted the crowd to disgorge a lucky citizen, like the winner of a Willy Wonka golden ticket, who would be allowed inside to ask, for the first time in 17 weeks, just what the hell the Hong Kong Chief Executive thought she was doing.
Carrie Lam is a Theresa May-like figure who seems to thrive on a performative stoicism, standing firm in the face of a self-inflicted crisis that a more capable politician would simply wiggle out of. She is a tragic figure in the same way that a pilot who points the nose of the aircraft at a mountain and refuses to listen to the passengers screaming for her to turn is a tragic figure. You puzzle over her motives while also wishing that someone, anyone, would throw her out of the plane.
But while May was at least an elected politician, Carrie Lam is an administrator down to her bones, a career civil servant who was elevated to power in 2017 and sees her role as a protector of order. Her litany throughout the crisis has been that Hong Kongers who are not the police must respect the rule of law, even when that law (as would happen a week after this event) is imposed by emergency decree. A former head prefect at her Catholic school, she has all the empathy of a supervisor at the department of motor vehicles explaining that your car will be compressed into a cube because of overdue parking fines.
Lam seems to have an innate aversion to the mob, the rabble, the people who in luckier places we would call voters. After a quarter of the city’s population marched in July, she called the protesters “a small minority of people” who “had no stake in their society.”
In November, she would refer to protesters more chillingly as ‘enemies of the people’, language that carries murderous connotations in China.
Lam’s preference is always for closed-door meetings, where she can speak to business leaders and other chosen audiences about how limited her options are, and how she can do nothing without permission from the center. In one such session that was surreptitiously recorded and leaked in August, Lam said she would not allow herself self-pity before reciting a litany of complaints. She wanted nothing more than to apologize and resign, she said, but Beijing wouldn’t let her. On policy matters, her hands were tied. Black-clad protesters had made her life a hell. She couldn’t even visit the hair salon in Hong Kong without fear of getting swarmed.
Tonight, though, she would be facing the public. Her hair looked amazing.
When the crisis in Hong Kong began, it was universally believed that Carrie Lam was executing a subtle plan dictated from Beijing. The attempt to rush an extradition law through the Legislative Council looked like a move in China’s long geopolitical chess game to erase constitutional protections in Hong Kong without spooking international finance.
So it was a shock to everyone when it emerged later in the crisis that the extradition law had been Carrie Lam’s own initiative. Rather than playing six-dimensional chess, it appeared that Beijing had accidentally appointed the most inflexible politician in China to head the Hong Kong S.A.R., and was now watching the ensuing disaster unfold as helplessly as everybody else.
Lam had plunged the financial capital of China into a crisis that required finesse, tact, and strategic retreat, and was attempting to solve it with tear gas and truncheons. Her bumbling radicalized a famously apolitical city, destroyed the Hong Kong police force, and welded an amorphous and diverse set of interests into something like a national identity.
A movement that had started with Christian hymns and a Les Miserables song now had its own national anthem, complete with a professionally produced video in which a symphony orchestra dressed in gas masks plays amidst clouds of tear gas. By September, the whole city had learned it by heart, and performed it at shopping malls, sporting events, schools, and spontaneously on the street. Tonight, if she cared to, she could hear it being sung outside her listening event.
Like a player scoring an own goal through an otherwise impenetrable defense, Lam had achieved by accident what no Chief Executive could have done through years of toil. She had forged Hong Kong into a nation. She was the accidental mother of her country.
Xinqi Su is a dynamo of Hong Kong journalism who finds a way to livetweet every significant protest event. True to form, on this night she was translating and posting audience questions almost in real time. Groups of six questioners were chosen by lot out of the audience. Each person got three minutes to speak. After everyone in a group had spoken, Lam (flanked by silent members of her cabinet) made her reply.
Many of the questioners wore masks. Perhaps they were mindful of what had happened the last time Lam held such a televised debate. All five student leaders who confronted her on television in the summer of 2014 were later arrested; three of them went to prison.
Possibly the audience was thinking of more recent events, like the August 29 attack in broad daylight on Jimmy Sham, head of the Civil Human Rights Front (Sham would be viciously beaten again on October 16), or a similar attack on legislator Roy Kwong, assaulted just two nights before the listening event.
(These fears were not misplaced. A second legislator, Stanley Ho, would be beaten three days after this event, on September 29, while several prominent opposition figures would be arrested on September 30.)
Two of the questioners stressed in their remarks that they were not suicidal, reflecting a pervasive belief among young people that a spate of police murders had been disguised as suicides. While not supported by evidence, these rumors, along with stories of deaths and disappearances at the Prince Edward MTR station, were deeply woven into the fabric of fear in Hong Kong, and no one in government had the moral authority or legitimacy to refute them.
Not surprisingly, this toxic level of mistrust was the central theme of the night. Person after person got up and asked Lam essentially the same thing—why did she refuse to set up an independent public inquiry into police brutality? Why had no one resigned or faced any disciplinary action after a summer of escalating abuses of power?
The sole questioner who used her time to praise the police and call for an investigation into the demonstrators was soon outed by internet sleuths as an off-duty cop. The message was not flattering: the government was so incompetent they couldn’t even rig their own listening event.
Lam gave each of these questioners the same answer as ever, which was no answer at all. There’s already an organization for handling police complaints, she said, shall we wait for them to finish their work?
No one on either side of the conflict , then or now, has a satisfactory theory of why Carrie Lam won’t form an independent inquiry into police violence, the demand that is the emotional core of the protests.
It’s obvious why the fifth demand, universal suffrage, poses a serious threat to China.
But why couldn’t there be an independent investigation into the police? Surely a career bureaucrat like Lam could think of a thousand ways to set up a commission that wouldn’t have teeth? It could study the situation for years, immunize everyone against prosecution, and eventually emit a report criticizing both sides for the excesses of the summer. If done with finesse, such a commission might even split the protest movement, the government’s cherished dream.
In other word, it was a bureaucratic lay-up. And yet Lam wouldn’t budge.
This was still September, before the police had shot a high schooler in the chest, before Lam’s government invoked emergency law for the first time since 1967, before the siege of the universities, before anyone had died at a protest. Total arrests on the eve of her listening session were 1,500 (today they are over 5,500). But already the police were the greatest threat to public safety in Hong Kong.
An emotional point of no return had come on July 21, when triad thugs burst into the Yuen Long MTR station and beat passengers at random. Two police officers who were witnesses to the scene had simply walked away. Nearby police stations pulled down their steel shutters as residents banged on them pleading for help. A police commander later revealed that five triads had spent weeks planning the event, either undetected by the police, or with their tacit connivance.
The Yuen Long attack was too much even for some Hong Kong cops to stomach. The triads were the enemy, not an auxiliary force to call in when a crowd needed to be roughed up without directly implicating the police. To the public, Yuen Long was the ultimate proof that the police were irredeemable.
When riot cops burst into Prince Edward station six weeks later and beat up passengers in an echo of the July attack, it simply confirmed the police and triads were interchangeable. 721 and 831 became numerical shorthand for the lawlessness and perfidy of the police.
Lam insisted at this listening event (and continues to insist today) that police should only investigate itself through the Independent Police Complaints Council, a sort of administrative oversight board for internal investigations. The IPCC lacks subpoena power and cannot protect witnesses against police retaliation.
It also can’t take complaints directly from citizens. Instead, they are supposed to report it first to a local police station, through a group ominously called CAPO (Complaints Against Police Office). The requirement that abuse be reported to the perpetrators puts people in absurd, awful situations—if you are assaulted at a police station, for example, the correct procedure is to turn around and go back inside to file your complaint.
When police officers involved in misconduct took to removing their badge numbers, which was the universal behavior by August, citizens had no redress at all. The police simply lied, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence. In one famous incident, they insisted that film showing a man in a yellow shirt being beaten by police in an alley showed only a “yellow object” who could not definitively be called a human being.
This abusive behavior at the hands of the Hong Kong police force was no longer an aberration, but policy. The police had adopted a counterinsurgency strategy that assumed the existence of a hard core of several hundred frontline demonstrators. The sooner those troublemakers could be arrested, the police logic went, the quicker the protests would come to an end. All other considerations went out the window.
The transformation of police into an occupying army left ordinary Hong Kongers without redress. The IPCC had been set up to catch the occasional corrupt cop, not to second-guess policy decisions made at the highest levels. Its members were all appointed by the Chief Executive.
A clear example of how broken the system was came just a day after this listening session, when a 22 year old woman was taken into in the Tsuen Wan police station, in the New Territories, and allegedly raped by four masked men. On October 22, she filed a complaint with the Complaints against Police Office. A few days later, the police obtained a search warrant for her medical records, including closed-circuit footage from her doctor’s clinic.
While the search warrant was finally quashed in court on November 28, the message it sent to potential accusers still hangs over Hong Kong: if you accuse the police, your life will be an open book, with the most private details leaked by the investigators you were forced to turn to in your search for justice.
And so it was that by early September, half of Hong Kongers said that on a scale of zero to ten, they had zero trust in police. Stories continued to surface about physical and sexual abuse in custody. Wilder rumors circulated, too, with no way to gainsay them. Carrie Lam’s approval rating dropped below twenty percent, a record for a Hong Kong chief executive. Seventy four percent said that if there were an election, they would vote against her.
But of course, there wasn’t going to be an election. That was the whole problem.
Once the listening event was over, Carrie Lam faced a new challenge—how to get out of the building. It was 10 PM and there were perhaps a couple of hundred protesters outside. Word had filtered out that Lam had told police not to disperse the crowd—even her awful political instincts could tell her not to tear gas her own listening event. I had gone home for the night, but this situation seemed too ripe to miss, so I retraced my steps through the now empty streets of Wan Chai.
It was eleven by the time I reached the stadium. The listening event had been over for an hour, and the neighborhood was quiet. Around Queen Elizabeth Stadium, the ranks of the protesters had thinned. Most of the chanting was being done from a garden wall by an elderly uncle who was working his way through a six pack.
The police officers occupying the glass-walled lobby looked tired. Sometime towards midnight, their commander gave them permission to sit along the base of the wall, and within minutes several were sleeping. A long weekend of oppression and police violence lay ahead of them, as the city braced for the National Day celebrations on October 1. Tonight’s event was supposed to have been an easy night off. Instead, Hong Kong’s finest were in for another cold dinner and cheerless homecoming.
Hong Kongers are savage when it comes to taunting the cops. They find the most resourceful ways to get under the police’s armor and sting them in the heart. At a recent rally, somebody had yelled “while you’re here, your wife’s at home banging a frontliner!” Tonight, the policeman’s wife and the frontliner would have time to cuddle. No one was coming home anytime soon.
A few minutes past midnight, the drunk uncle finished his last beer and zigzagged away. The police were sound asleep. The protesters sat and waited, while the press corps continued their stakeout of the parking garage. Every once in a while, the journalists would spook themselves into a burst of activity, like chickens do when the fox is near. But it was always a false alarm, and they retreated back into their phones.
By one o’clock, only a dozen or so protesters remained, far outnumbered by the press. I saw the blinds part in a window above the parking garage, and two eyes peer out through the gap. A small voice from the street called out in English:
“Carrie Lam, come out!”
But Carrie Lam stayed in.
Around 1:30, a senior policeman woke up his colleagues in the lobby. They shuffled off somewhere, and soon after, a squad of them in riot gear burst out a side door into the alley, flashing strobe lights and making a racket. Two cameramen jogged over to film them and got yelled at. The police unit trotted off into the night.
More waiting. Then, finally, an unmistakable burst of activity in the parking garage. SUV doors opened and engines rumbled to life. The reporters rushed forward to film, forming a semicircle in front of the parking ramp. A few hoarse voices, all that was left of the protesters, began to chant. I counted no more than ten. The SUVs roared up the ramp, then turned off their engines.
It was a feint. The handsome black SUVs had been sent to deke us out while Carrie Lam was hustled out the door on the opposite side of the building, where a camera captured her escape. She looked serene as ever, still smiling, still poised, surrounded by the police who from now on would be her only point of contact with the public. They led her to a waiting car, protecting her from a threat that existed only in her imagination.
And that was the last time the government held a listening session in Hong Kong.
« A Week With No Tear Gas
there are very different ideas there are
still very different ideas the hypnosis
of the end of history is something that
we have to break ourselves out of the
fist thing that I think I’ve understood
is that the catalyst or if you want the
lubricant of regime change is mistrust
right the sense of uncertainty the sense
that nothing is real or nothing is true
if you are having that feeling now as
many Americans are you are right we’re
Russians were about a decade ago okay
they’re much further along now right
there they’re in a different place now
as people say but if you have that sense
that you don’t know who to trust as
journalism real as history real you know
should I listen to white men wearing
ties actually the answer is generally no
right and make it but but make an
exception right make an exception oh no
no I think I feel I feel like Sean
Spicer has totally ruined this look for
me but but i but i don’t know where else
to go so like maybe you know maybe you
can help you out afterwards anyway that
that mistrust is the rubric mistrust
makes it happen right because if you
don’t think anything’s true and you
don’t trust anyone then the rule of law
can’t work and if the rule of law can’t
work then democracy is going to fall
right democracy depends on the rule of
law rule of law has depends on a certain
basic level of trust that basic level of
trust it’s not that we agree about
everything but that we agree there’s a
world in there facts in it if you lose
that then you lose rule of law then you
lose democracy right and the people who
are going after trusts the people who
are tweeting random things at 5:30 in
the morning right they are consciously
ripping out the heart of democracy it’s
not the skin right it’s not the muscle
that’s going to resigned it’s not the
bones it’s going right for the heart
it’s skipping the step of democracy
right it’s going right for the heart
it’s ripping out the thing which makes
democracy possible the final thing the
number 19is the one about patriotism in generalthe ones towards the end of the book aremeant to come later but you knowsometimes events outpace you or catch orcatch you up as Vic and I like to saycatch you up be a patriot set a good thegenerations to come they will need itwhat is patriotism let us begin withwhat patriotism is not it is notpatriotic to dodge the draft and to mockwar heroes and their familiesit is not patriotic to discriminateagainst active duty members of the ArmedForces and one’s companies or a campaignto keep disabled veterans away fromone’s property it is not patriotic tocompare one search for sexual partnersin New York with the military service inVietnam that one has dodged it is notpatriotic to avoid paying taxesespecially when American workingfamilies do pay it is not patriotic toask those working taxpaying Americanfamilies to finance one’s ownpresidential campaign and then to spendtheir contributions in one’s own inone’s own companies it is not patrioticto admire foreign dictators it is notpatriotic to cultivate a relationshipwith Muammar Gaddafi or to say thatBashar al-assad and Vladimir Putin aresuperior leaders it is not patriotic tocall upon Russia to intervene in anAmerican presidential electionit is not patriotic to cite Russianpropaganda at rallies it is notpatriotic to share an advisor withRussian oligarchs and is not patrioticto solicit foreign policy advice fromsomeone who owns shares in a Russianenergy company it is not patriotic toread a foreign policy speech written bysomeone on the payroll of a Russianenergy company it is not patriotic toappoint a national security advisor whois taking money from a Russianpropaganda organ it is not patriotic toappointed Secretary of State an oil manwith Russian financial interests who isthe director of a Russian Americanenergy company and has received theorder of friendship from Putin the pointis not that Russia and America must beenemies the point is that patriotisminvolves serving your own country thepresident is a nationalist which is notat all the same things a patriot anationalist encourages us to be ourworst and then tells us that we are thebest a nationalist quote althoughendlessly brooding on power victorydefeat revenge wrote Orwell tends to bequote uninterested in what happens inthe real worldunquote nationalism is relativist sincethe only truth is the resentment we feelwhen we contemplate others as thenovelist bunnyville keys put itnationalism quote has no universalvalues aesthetic or ethical a patriot bycontrast wants the nation to live up toits ideals which means asking us to beour best selves a patriot must beconcerned with the real world which isthe only place where his country can beloved and sustained a patriot hasuniversal values standards by which hejudges his nation always wishing it welland wishing that it would do betterdemocracy failed in Europe in the 1920s1930s and 1940s and it is failingnot only in much of Europe but in manyparts of the world today it is thathistory and experience that reveals tous the dark range of our possiblefutures a nationalist will say that itcan’t happen here which is the firststep towards disaster a patriot saysthat it could happen here look that wewill stop it thank41:03I don’t I don’t have a silver bullet forthat but I do have some ways of tryingto get one’s mind around it the first isthat is is technological I mean it justit just turns out that the Internet doesnot open the broad you know the broadsweep towards the positive globalizationthat Al Gore was dreaming of right inthe 1990s that just isn’t true just likeit wasn’t true with a book which broughtus the Wars of Religion right just likeit wasn’t true a radio which brought usfascism all of these new I mean notalone right but all of these newtechnologies are extremely unpredictablefor some like transition period that maylast a hundred years right there they’revery unpredictable so art like our kindof and this is something this is abubble that I think Hillary Clintonherself was caught in her campaign wascaught in people on these coats werethought and people did not realize whatthe internet actually was right what itwas actually doing and this is I meanthere’s an empirical thing here there’sa technical thing here the empiricalthing is people just did not realize howhow siloed off we had become I didn’trealize it until I actually startedtalking to real took when I wascanvassing and talking to Trump votersin the Midwest and then I realized likethis is so dumb but it was at thatmoment that I realized just howdifferent my facebook feed was fromother people’s because if you hear fromwhat seemed to be 25 independent sourcesthat Hillary Clinton is a murderer andyou’ve been hearing it for six monthsyou might well believe itall right I mean that’s not surprisingwhich is the technical thing not enoughpeople again really a Clinton campaignwhatever realized thatDonald Trump actually had a campaignadvantage right we talked incessantlyabout being a ground game ground game Isaw the ground game you know it’s likeit’s twice all agree I what the groundgame in the AK in the ground game whichis below the ground game right and whatthe Russians called a psycho sphereTrump had a tremendous advantage howmuch of that was actually is campaigninghow much there was actually the RussiansI don’t know but in terms of the bots interms of the technical distribution ofthe false news at the generation andtechnical distribution he had a hugeadvantage and what turned out almostcertainly be a decisive advantage theseare things that we have to understandand get our mind around now in terms ofwhat we can do I mean obviously like youknow Zuckerberg can do a lot and peoplewho are in charge of news distributioncan can do a lot there are two littlethings I mean one is kind of just adeclaration I think 2017 is already andis going to be a heroic year forjournalism I mean and I be absolutelymean heroic like if this is going toturn around it’s going to be because ofpeople pursuing old fashioned storiesand old-fashioned ways and printing andpublishing very often in print journalswho can afford or at least try to try toafford to be able to do such things andand I mean it’s also generationally likethere are a lot of really interestingyoung people who now see journalism asedgy and they’re right right like thewhole threat like that the phrasemainstream media that’s not like what’smainstream is the derision of the mediathat’s the mainstream right being ajournalist is now edgy and dangerous andinteresting right and I think maybehistorically meaningful and you know thelittle thing I say in the book which isobvious I’m sure you all do it is thatwe need to pay for a bunch ofsubscriptions because if everybody paysfor subscriptions that will actually beenough to subsidize investigations rightand that I mean even we know that peoplelike us often don’t do that right and ifwe all did it that would make a hugedifference and then finally there’s likethere’s the internet self policing whichis it we have to think we have toremember that we are all now publishersright and so therefore we all everyevery individual makes a difference interms of what is actually beingdistributed right if we think about itthat way then each of us can make usfeel better to write like if you pickedreporters from the real world followtheir workget to know them as it were and thendistribute their work online then you’rebeing a publisher who’s doing a littlebit of good so let the day-to-day levelthat’s something that we can do thankthat the cleat and actually the questionwe just had the cleavages are going tochange they’re already changing and inEurope they’re it’s further along thanthan here because certain things arefurther along in Europe and here but Ithink the real dividing lines are factand post fact and andanti-authoritarianism authoritarianismand I think the anti I think I agreewith your premise the anti-authoritariancase is unfortunately a case that has tobe made right it can lose but I thinkthat’s the case that has to be made andit goes back to how one wins also theanti-authoritarian z– have to include agood deal of my view conservativespeople who vote Republican right peoplewho people who think there should be aConstitution although they would havethey would disagree about policy youknow perhaps with me right theanti-authoritarian camp is gonna have toinclude a lot of folks like that as wellso so so my answer is that of courseyou’re right I mean the Bill of Rightsis there for the reason you give that’swhy the Bill of Rights is there it’s notthere because it’s popular it’s therebecause it would be unpopular right whowants to separate church and state it’dbe so much more fun to have my you knowmy church right I mean who’s not temptedby that right few people okay so likeokay I was going to list all I want afavor anyway there are a fewdenominations who have maybe not beatsbut in general like we you belong forrare tradition if you belong to atradition which has never try to takeover the state at some point or found astate right so how is dividing churchand state popular it’s not meant to bepopular it’s meant to be sensible thesethings are not meant to be popular andso that means they have to be defendedprecisely but I think I think there isenough of a consensus aroundConstitution that one can at least startthere as a way of shaming people orgathering people but I mean my basic mybasic notion is that you get yeah itgoes on very deep it’s whether you’regoing to authoritarian oranti-authoritarian and the people whoare trying to change things already knowthey’re authoritarians right so here wejust one of the comments when HillaryClinton stated at the time that Russiawas taking over Crimea and invading ruleand she compared it to sedating landtakeover and everybody scoffs better shehad to pull it back but I don’t knowwhether you thought that was more aptthan some B’s well I mean on andElizabeth who was a very gifted andconservative Russian historian made thesame comparison and lost his lost hisjob for it no of course it’s apt rightso here’s like here’s how Americans joinyou with history the Americans deal withhistory as though history were an mp3and if it doesn’t sound exactly the samewhen you punch the button as it did theprevious time then you think something’swrong right that’s what American says ifit does if it doesn’t repeat perfectlyso if Americans will say oh well thereno there no swastikas so no jackbootsI’m changing the channel I’m afraid likethat’s our Nats our national response tothe history this whole taboo thing aboutthe 1930s is a way of saying well in thein the naive view and the naive viewit’s a way of saying okay we don’t knowanything about history that’s fine rightbecause no analogies can be perfectI mean Crimean sedate land is actuallyan extremely good analogy it’s a veryclose analogy right but none is going tobe perfect right and so saying oh that’sjust an analogy or that’s a way of justnot thinking about history and once youdon’t think about history you’re doneyou’re finished because history is theonly thing which teaches you how peoplehave successfully resisted it’s also theonly thing we teaches you howinstitutions are constructed right sothe moment you say oh no comparisonsyou’re done forget it right it’s over soit’s a very it’s a very dangerous verydangerous move and in the dark versionthe non naive version in the darkversion it’s quite deliberate you knowyou say well I you know I am NOT exactlylike Hitler and therefore it’s okayright and we’re getting to that pointright you know they’re nothing is wrongI’m overstating this slightly but notmuchnothing is wrong because they’re onconcentration camps yet no no no no youknow and there weren’t you know thewrong concentration camps in in January1933 either right okay
Are the dominant voices of white evangelical Christianity in the United States destined to be angry and defensive? Is President Trump making sure they stay that way?
I found myself asking these questions after I read my Post colleague Elizabeth Bruenig’s revealing and deeply reported essay about her journey to Texas to probe why evangelicals have been so loyal to Trump and are likely to remain so.
Hers was a venture in sympathetic understanding and empathetic listening. What she heard was a great desire to push back against liberals, to defend a world that sees itself under siege and to embrace Trump — not as a particularly good man but as a fighter against all of the things and people and causes that they cannot abide. Even more, they believe liberals and secularists are utterly hostile to the culture they have built and the worldview they embrace.“I think conservatives for decades have felt bullied by the left, and the default response was to roll over and take it,” said the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of Dallas’s First Baptist church and one of the very earliest and most vocal leaders of Trump’s evangelical bloc.
I confess I don’t really see the “roll over” part. Conservative politicians, Fox News commentators and talk-radio hosts have engaged in plenty of bullying of their own. But I have no doubt that Jeffress was telling the truth about how he and like-minded folks feel.
This means that the nastiness that makes Trump so odious to many of us comes off to his evangelical Christian supporters (even when it makes them uneasy) as a hallowed form of militancy against what one evangelical whom Bruenig interviewed called “a den of vipers” engaged in what another called “spiritual warfare.”Bruenig summarized the approach to politics she kept running into as “focused on achieving protective accommodations against a broader, more liberal national culture.” She wondered whether conservative evangelical Christians will “continue to favor the rise of figures such as Trump, who are willing to dispense with any hint of personal Christian virtue while promising to pause the decline of evangelical fortunes — whatever it takes.”
What struck me in reading Bruenig’s chronicle is that the undoubtedly serious faith of those she encountered was less central to their embrace of Trump than a tribal feeling of beleaguerment — remember: Defending a culture is not the same as standing up for beliefs about God. Their deeply conservative views are not far removed from those of non-evangelical conservatives.
Above all, there was a Republican partisanship that has been around for a long time. In some cases, it goes back to 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson’s embrace of civil rights incited many white Southerners, including evangelicals, to bolt the Democratic Party. In other cases, Republican loyalties were cemented by Ronald Reagan in 1980.We keep coming back to Trump’s white evangelical base because it seems so strange that religious people with strong moral convictions could embrace someone whose behavior violates so many of the norms they uphold. But party is a big deal these days, and there was nothing extraordinary about Trump’s share of the white evangelical vote. He won what Republican presidential candidates typically win. His 80 percentamong white evangelicals in 2016 was hardly a surge from Mitt Romney’s 78 percent in 2012.
In the end, party triumphed over any qualms evangelicals may have felt about the “Access Hollywood” candidate. Long-standing conservative desires (for sympathetic Supreme Court justices) and inclinations (a deep dislike of Hillary Clinton) reinforced what partisanship recommended.
I get why those with strongly held traditional religious views feel hostility from centers of intellectual life and the arts. More secular liberals should consider Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff’s suggestion in “Religion in the University” that religious voices be welcomed at institutions of higher learning in much the same way the once-excluded perspectives of feminists and African Americans are now welcomed. One of the academy’s purposes is to bring those with different backgrounds and experiences into reasoned dialogue. Religious people must be part of that conversation.
But reasoned dialogue is far removed from what’s happening in our politics now, and the irony is that the Trumpification of the evangelicals will only widen the gaps they mourn between themselves and other parts of our society. In her recent book “America’s Religious Wars: The Embattled Heart of Our Public Life ,” Kathleen M. Sands, a University of Hawaii professor, writes of a long-standing conflict between “anti-modernist religion and anti-religious modernism.” Trump has every interest in aggravating and weaponizing mistrust that is already there. And judging from Bruenig’s account, he’s succeeding brilliantly.
Rogue nations thrive when the good lose all conviction.
Most of human history has been marked by war. Between 1500 and 1945, scarcely a year went by without some great power fighting another great power. Then, in 1945 that stopped. The number of battlefield deaths has plummeted to the lowest levels in history. The world has experienced the greatest reduction in poverty in history, as well as the greatest spread of democracy and freedom.
Why did this happen? Mostly it was because the United States decided to lead a community of nations to create a democratic world order. That order consisted of institutions like NATO, the U.N. and the World Bank. But it was also enforced by the pervasive presence of American power — military, economic and cultural power as well as the magnetic power of the democratic idea, which inspired dissidents worldwide.
Building any community requires exercising power. America’s leaders made some terrible mistakes (Vietnam, Iraq). The nation never got to enjoy the self-righteous sense of innocence that the powerless and reclusive enjoy.
But the U.S. having been dragged into two world wars, leaders from Truman to Obama felt they had no choice but to widen America’s circle of concern across the whole world. This was abnormal. As Robert Kagan writes in “The Jungle Grows Back,”“Very few nations in history have ever felt any responsibility for anything but themselves.”