Nothing bonds a group more tightly than a common enemy that is perceived as a mortal threat.
To understand the corruption, chaos, and general insanity that is continuing to engulf the Trump campaign and much of the Republican Party right now, it helps to understand the predicate embraced by many Trump supporters: If Joseph R. Biden Jr. wins the presidency, America dies.
During last week’s Republican National Convention, speaker after speaker insisted that life under a Biden presidency would be dystopian. Charlie Kirk, the young Trump acolyte who opened the proceedings, declared, “I am here tonight to tell you—to warn you—that this election is a decision between preserving America as we know it and eliminating everything that we love.” President Trump, who closed the proceedings, said, “Your vote will decide
- whether we protect law-abiding Americans or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists and agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens. And this election will decide
- whether we will defend the American way of life or allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it.” And in between Americans were told that
- Democrats want to “disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door” and that
- they “want to destroy this country and everything that we have fought for and hold dear.”
“They’re not satisfied with spreading the chaos and violence into our communities. They want to abolish the suburbs altogether,” a St. Louis couple who had brandished weapons against demonstrators outside their home, told viewers. “Make no mistake, no matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.”One does not have to be a champion of the Democratic Party to know this chthonic portrait is absurd. But it is also essential, because it allows Trump and his followers to tolerate and justify pretty much anything in order to win. And “anything” turns out to be quite a lot.
In just the past two weeks, the president has praised supporters of the right-wing conspiracy theory
- QAnon, which contends, as The Guardian recently summarized it, that “a cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats, Hollywood celebrities and billionaires runs the world while engaging in pedophilia, human trafficking and the harvesting of a supposedly life-extending chemical from the blood of abused children.” Trump touted a conspiracy theory that
- the national death toll from COVID-19 is about 9,000, a fraction of the official figure of nearly 185,000; promoted a program on the One America News Network accusing demonstrators of secretly plotting Trump’s downfall; encouraged his own supporters to commit voter fraud; and claimed Biden is controlled by “people that are in the dark shadows” who are wearing “dark uniforms.”
- Trump believes his own government is conspiring to delay a COVID-19 vaccine until after the election. He retweeted a message from the actor James Woods saying
- New York Governor Andrew Cuomo “should be in jail” and another from an account
- accusing the Portland, Oregon, mayor of “committing war crimes.”
- The president is “inciting violence,” in the words of Maryland’s Republican Governor, Larry Hogan.
- Trump defended 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, a supporter who is charged with first-degree homicide; and stated that
- if he loses the election in November it would be because it was “rigged.” At the same time,
- the second-ranking House Republican, among other of the president’s supporters, has shared several manipulated videos in an effort to damage Biden.
This is just the latest installment in a four-year record of shame, indecency, incompetence, and malfeasance. And yet, for tens of millions of Trump’s supporters, none of it matters. None of it even breaks through. At this point, it appears, Donald Trump really could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose his voters.
This phenomenon has no shortage of explanations, but perhaps the most convincing is the terror the president’s backers feel. Time and again, I’ve had conversations with Trump supporters who believe the president is all that stands between them and cultural revolution. Trump and his advisers know it, which is why the through line of the RNC was portraying Joe Biden as a Jacobin.
Republicans chose that theme despite the fact that during his almost 50 years in politics, Biden hasn’t left any discernible ideological imprint on either the nation or his own party. Indeed, Biden is notable for his success over the course of his political career in forging alliances with many Republicans. I worked at the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the early 1990s when William Bennett was its director and George H. W. Bush was president. Biden was then chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee; he and his staff were supportive of our work, and not in the least ideological. There will be no remaking of the calendar if Joe Biden becomes president.Still, in the minds of Trump’s supporters lingers the belief that a Biden presidency would usher in a reign of terror. Many of them simply have to believe that. Justifying their fealty to a man who is so obviously a moral wreck requires them to turn Joe Biden and the Democratic Party into an existential threat. The narrative is set; the actual identity of the nominee is almost incidental.
A powerful tribal identity bonds the president to his supporters. As Amy Chua, the author of Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, has argued, the tribal instinct is not just to belong, but also to exclude and to attack. “When groups feel threatened,” Chua writes, “they retreat into tribalism. They close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them.”
That works both ways. Fear strengthens tribalistic instincts, and tribalistic instincts amplify fear. Nothing bonds a group more tightly than a common enemy that is perceived as a mortal threat. In the presence of such an enemy, members of tribal groups look outward rather than inward, at others and never at themselves or their own kind.
The danger of this mindset—in which the means, however unethical, justify the ends of survival—is obvious. And so in this case, Trump supporters will tolerate everything he does, from
- making hush-money payments to porn stars and
- engaging in sexually predatory behavior, to
- inviting America’s adversaries to intervene in our elections, to
- pressuring American allies to dig up dirt on the president’s opponent, to
- cozying up to some of the worst dictators in the world, to
- peddling crazed conspiracy theories, to
- mishandling a pandemic at the cost of untold lives, to
- countless other ethical and governing transgressions.
Trump is given carte blanche by his supporters because they perceive him as their protector, transforming his ruthlessness from a vice into a virtue.
In my experience, if Trump supporters are asked to turn their gaze away from their perceived opponents, and instead to focus and reflect on him and on his failures, they respond in a couple of consistent ways. Many shift the topic immediately back to Democrats, because offering a vigorous moral defense of Donald Trump isn’t an easy task. It’s like asking people to stare directly into the sun; they might do it for an instant, but then they look away. But if you do succeed in keeping the topic on Trump, they often twist themselves into knots in order to defend him, and in some cases they simply deny reality.
“Motivation conditions cognition,” Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer at The Atlantic, wisely told me. Very few Trump supporters I know are able to offer an honest appraisal of the man. To do so creates too much cognitive dissonance.That they are defending a person who is fundamentally malicious, even if he makes judicial appointments of which they approve, is too painful for them to admit. They are similarly unable to admit they are defending an ethic that is at odds with what they have long championed. They have accepted, excused, and applauded Trump’s behavior and tactics, allowing his ends to justify his means. In important respects, this is antithetical to a virtue ethic. So once again, it’s easier for them to look away or engage in self-deception; to convince themselves that Donald Trump is not who he so clearly is.
These reactions aren’t confined to Trump supporters; people across the political spectrum struggle with confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, in giving too much benefit of the doubt to those with whom we agree and judging too harshly and unfairly those with whom we disagree. That is part of the human condition. The degree to which Democrats, including feminists, overlooked or accepted Bill Clinton’s sexually predatory behavior—including his campaign’s effort to smear his accusers and its use of a private investigator to destroy Gennifer Flowers’s reputation “beyond all recognition”—is an illustration of this. So Flowers was branded a “bimbo” and a “pathological liar,” even though Clinton later, under oath, admitted to having an affair with her.
“If you drag a $100 bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find,” James Carville said in response to Paula Jones’s claim that Clinton sexually harassed her. In defending President Clinton against the charges of sexual harassment made by Kathleen Willey, who accused Clinton of groping her without her consent, Gloria Steinem wrote, “The truth is that even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.” And Nina Burleigh, who covered the White House for Time magazine, said, “I’d be happy to give him a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.” So Democrats should be careful about looking down at others for accommodating themselves to unsavory and even repulsive characters for the sake of partisanship.
But what’s different in this case is that Trump, because of the corruption that seems to pervade every area of his life and his damaged psychological and emotional state, has shown us just how much people will accept in their leaders as a result of “negative partisanship,” the force that binds parties together less in common purpose than in opposition to a shared opponent. As the conservative writer David French has put it, with Donald Trump and his supporters we are seeing “negative partisanship in its near-pure form, and it’s the best way to explain Trump’s current appeal to the Republican party.” His ideology is almost entirely beside the point, according to French: “His identity matters more, and his identity is clear—the Republican champion against the hated Democratic foe.”
I know plenty of Trump supporters, and I know many of them to be people of integrity in important areas of their lives. Indeed, some are friends I cherish. But if there is a line Donald Trump could cross that would forfeit the loyalty of his core supporters—including, and in some respects especially, white evangelical Christians—I can’t imagine what it would be. And that is a rather depressing thing to admit.
Polarization and political tribalism are not new to America; fear and hatred for our fellow citizens have been increasing for decades. We’ve had plenty of presidents who have failed us, in ways large and small. But this moment is different because Donald Trump is different, and because Donald Trump is president. His relentless assault on truth and the institutions of democracy—his provocations and abuse of power, his psychological instability and his emotional volatility, his delusions and his incompetence—are unlike anything we’ve seen before. He needs to be stopped. And his supporters can’t say, as they did in 2016, that they just didn’t know. Now we know. It’s not too late—it’s never too late—to do the right thing.
What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
Follow your emotions.
Life is a battle between Good People and Evil People.
It may be obvious that people who identify politically as liberals and conservatives think differently because they disagree on issues ranging from immigration to climate change policy. But what are the deeper psychological roots that drive their political beliefs? In the aftermath of the federal election, the Agenda explores the conservative mind vs. the liberal mind.
the first place Rob well you’ve got the
floor let’s just dive a little deeper
here on some of the work that you’ve
done comparing the moral beliefs of
conservatives and liberals and let’s
start with this to what extent do you
think people on the right and the left
live in different moral worlds yeah I
think that I think there’s a lot of
truth in that there’s pretty robust
finding in the political psychology
literature that liberals tend to endorse
and and deploy moral values like
protecting people from harm
empathy fairness and equality more than
servus do while conservatives deploy
moral values like
- group loyalty
- respect for authority and
- moral purity and sanctity
more than then
liberals do and we find that you know
when they go to make the case for those
specific political positions liberals
and conservatives tend to rely on these
their their respective moral values but
this can often lead them to make to make
cases for their politics that don’t
resonate with the other side might not
even be legible to someone on the other
side well that’s lorilynn you’re hearing
yeah let me follow up on that no I do I
want to do two quick follow-ups with you
right here because give us a for
instance if a liberal we’re trying to
change a conservatives mind about for
example climate change what would be the
better arguments to Marshall given what
you’ve just told us
yeah our research suggests that a
conservative might be more responsive to
an argument about the environment or
climate change if it was articulated in
terms of purity sanctity and pollutants
being disgusting D sanctifying human
bodies and and nature that that’s sort
of a message because it fits with the
conservative value of moral purity we
find tends to be more effective than a
more conventional argument that a
liberal would be more likely to make in
terms of the need to protect vulnerable
ecosystems from from harm which doesn’t
tend to move the needle at least among
conservative and let’s do the other side
of the coin what about a conservative
trying to impress upon a liberal the
importance of let’s say military
spending something like that yeah so we
also find that this principle that if
you want to make an effective political
appeal you ought to think very carefully
about the person you’re communicating
with moral values and deeply all beliefs
we find it applies in both directions so
if you were trying to convince a liberal
to support high levels of military
spending it might not make a lot of
sense to make an argument in terms of
patriotism and the authoritative power
of the American military and instead you
might think well how could I tie this in
with liberal concerns about equal
opportunity and so we found that
an appeal that emphasized that the
military is a place where the poor and
minorities can achieve on a more level
playing field than in the you know the
open society that that’s sort of an
appeal LED liberals to say oh maybe
maybe I do support high levels of
military spending because they can it
helps the poor and minorities advance in
society hmm this potentially potentially
Paul opens the door to well who knows
everybody’s in their respective corners
right now in the boxing ring that is you
know the world today and I wonder if the
arguments could be reframed so that
people could speak a little could speak
to conservatives in a language that they
would appreciate better and vice versa
could you reduce polarization in the
world I think you can I think rob has
some excellent ideas now to do it I also
think we could we don’t have to give up
on idea of focusing on our common ground
so it’s true that conservatives in some
ways focus much more on groups and
issues of patriotism and nationalism but
liberals are no stranger to calls for
identity and group identity in fact
identity politics focusing on your
ethnicity or your gender your sexual
orientation is very much of an explicit
focus of a lot of liberal thoughts so in
some way they’re speaking the same
language they’re just talking about
different things and there’s something
else as well regarding reconciliation
and agreement which is I think by nature
by inclination by how we think there’s
an enormous amount of overlap between
liberals and conservatives but in the
hurly-burly political world and social
media there was a huge split of us
versus them where all of a sudden being
a liberal I’m not responding to a
certain claim or idea based on how I
naturally react to it but I is it is it
from my team or is it from your team and
there’s a lot of research finding that
if you give people an idea cap-and-trade
a response to climate change
funding for private schools and you tell
them this is a liberal idea or this is a
conservative idea they react very
differently to it your study after study
finding people don’t even care about the
idea they just care about is it my team
or is it your team and if we could rid
political discourse of that or at least
diminish it we do
much much better well Becky let’s do an
example of something you’ve studied
fracking tell us the story so I think
that this speaks to Rob suggestion of
how to play to people’s morality and
having this kind of discussion so we
examined people’s favorability towards
hydraulic fracturing and the degree to
which they thought this was risky and we
found that people who are higher in
political conservatism were more
favorable towards hydraulic fracturing
and they saw it as less risky
we also measured knowledge about
fracking and people that knew more about
it had less favorable attitudes about it
and they thought it’s more risky
however conservatives that knew more
about hydraulic fracturing for them they
had even more favorable attitudes and so
it is even less favorable than
conservatives that didn’t know a lot
about it and you find this same pattern
when you look at climate change so this
kind of goes against this notion that if
we just educate other people and they
know more and they’re more aware of
these issues they’ll get what I think
and they’ll be on board with my attitude
or the way that I see the world and
that’s not what happens you have another
question yeah do you think I don’t know
if you’ve done this but do you think
have you told a group of conservatives a
group of liberals and saying you know
what do you think of fracking and let me
tell you this Bernie Sanders Elizabeth
Warren one thing they agree on is we
need more fracking of this type it’s
very important it’s important for their
environment or to help American business
to increase minority access to jobs do
you think being told that would sway
their views I think it depends on who it
is so people that don’t know as much
about politics and don’t have that kind
of firm identity or just knowledgeable
for them it could sway them but for
people that are very knowledgeable at
these things they understand what
defines a conservative position and a
liberal position it’s not going to sway
them so I think that political identity
in belonging to these groups is really
important in dictating our beliefs or
attitudes how we vote but it’s not the
only thing and I worry sometimes that we
overstate it so I think it depends on
the person and I think it depends on the
context so in an American context right
now where the stakes are really high you
can see how people might be more apt to
kind of be like okay I can give that up
right now even it’s important to me
because I want my team to win but kind
of under normal circumstances or less
high threat or high stakes situations it
shouldn’t have the same kind of impact I
mean living in a state in the age of
very much in a high polarization time
there is a study that was recently done
which ask people about cap and trade
what do you think of cap and trade and
people had very strong views about it
then they asked them another question
what is cap and trade and I gotta say I
like I’m not I have found myself
exposing strong views and realizing I
don’t know that much I just know what
views I’m supposed to have yeah I’m
still waiting for the moment where there
where the conservative person says wait
a second Bernie Sanders and Liz Warren
are in favor of fracking date you don’t
think anybody would say that they would
be surprised they would be surprised
indeed if they were to say that okay
let’s um yeah
apropos of my team is better than yours
let’s go on to this in today’s polarized
world is it simply okay Rob you start
with this is it simply more important
okay for for for people to say I’m with
my team I don’t care I’m not
influenceable by facts I don’t care what
the facts say loyalty to my team is all
what it’s about nowadays right yeah I
think there’s a lot of evidence for that
and I think that what we see when we
look at trends and polarization in the
US over the last 40 years or so and this
is in the general public mind you that
you don’t see as much of ideological
polarization wherein people are clumping
around coherent ideological worldviews
because people are kind of they’re a
little bit disorganized in in their
thoughts they don’t spend all their time
thinking and talking about politics and
those who do they are very ideological
on average but what we see very clearly
is this rising antipathy across party
lines where Democrats and Republicans
you know increasingly dislike the
political out group and favor their own
in-group over the last 40 years or so
and if you look for like well what what
sparked all this I think that the
biggest thing that sparked it was that
at the elite level elected politicians
Congress people the president and so on
they polarized first they separated
along party lines and became
ideologically distinct you know by the
80s or so in a way that was not so much
the case in the 50s and
once that happened it became easier to
say okay no I really am a Democrat
because I’m a liberal and I really am
not like those other people and in fact
I really dislike them but when things
were a little more mixed up in terms of
what Democrats Republicans believed as
was the case in the 50s it was harder to
hate the other side cuz they were not so
clearly different from from your own
Becky let me let me pursue with you the
notion about whether or not we are less
polarized in Canada than they are in the
United States basically everybody who
gets elected down there is a Democrat or
a Republican basically I mean you got a
few independents along the way but
basically that’s it we just had an
election which is going to send liberals
and conservatives and New Democrats and
block East’s and greens to our federal
parliament and the People’s Party even
they didn’t win any seats but they got a
bunch of votes what does that say I
think there’s several things that are
going on I think we’re not immune to the
kind of quote/unquote tribalism that’s
happening south of the border but I
think that we have some buffers in the
sense that we have a multi-party system
now if any one of those parties should
gain more popularity to kind of lose
some of those I think we would be in
greater danger of having this kind of us
versus them mentality and I think that
still exists here but it’s difficult to
have that to the same extreme because we
have more than one party so there’s
multiple people kind of vying for power
how accurate do you think the view that
conservatives have of liberals and vice
all is yeah there’s been a lot of work
on this and and there are two things one
thing is that psychologists are always
interesting everybody’s interested in
bias against against women against black
people against gays and their subtle
measures of this but the bias is we have
at least in the states towards the other
political team are anything but subtle
they’re powerful people to say if you’re
a Republican I don’t want to see a
Democrat I don’t want my kid to marry a
Democrat and then you get to kick the
question of accuracy so when you ask
people about other groups let me ask you
some questions about about gay people
about women it turns out a lot of
studies have been done showing that to
bet people have a pretty good perception
of the other group what jobs they tend
to have all sorts of other factors about
them but this goes to garbage
when you ask people politics so Liberals
have very confused ideas about
conservatives and conservatives very
confused ideas about liberals and what
happens is that this sort of tribalism
we’re talking about distorts our
thinking if you’re my worst enemy in the
world I’m not gonna think about you in
an objective fashion I’m gonna pile upon
you every stupid and ugly attitude and
and and you know if if if not it’s not
hard to see that this is not a good
thing politically and maybe this is why
Canadian politics which doesn’t have too
strict you know either-or dichotomy that
American politics has is less vicious
than American politics so a lot less
interesting too the last time you were
on this program and in fact I can see
your book on the Shelf right over there
we talked about your book about empathy
and so I’m going to facetiously say to
you right now because I know what your
answer is gonna be more empathy would
help this right well I’m not gonna say
yes come on I’m sighs you to say yes I’m
sure will surprise me which is it
depends what you mean by empathy so so
one sort of empathy which means feeling
the pain of others feeling the suffering
of others a study came out last week
which is causing a lot of play which
finds that the more empathy you have of
that sort the the more you hate the
other group why because you devote all
that feeling and empathy towards your
own group it makes you more tribal on
the other hand there’s another sort of
empathy which the most understanding
people perspective taking and I think
that is mostly for the good I think that
that you know if I if I was I was a
Hillary voter I don’t need to put myself
in the shoes of a trump voter but I
should try to understand why they voted
for Trump among other things if I want
my side to win the next time it sure
helps to know why why I didn’t win last
time just a few minutes to go here and
let me get Jonathan Hyde into this
conversation and the social psychologist
recently had this to say left and right
are like yin and yang both see different
threats push in different directions and
protect different things that matter and
that are at risk of getting trampled by
the other side okay bigger picture here
do liberals and conservatives need each
other in some way less their own
impulses turn inward and destructive
so I’d say on a macro level that is
probably beneficial to have a diverse
pool of ideological outlooks
I think anything in the extreme could
kind of lead us down a dangerous path
and I think there’s many examples of
very extreme right-wing or left-wing
governments around the world the kind of
plate of that to illustrate kind of the
dangers I think having a sort of push
each other back and forth and keep us in
check again on a macro level is probably
beneficial on the whole Rob I disagree
with everything you say but damn it all
I need you is that what we’re saying i I
you know I think there’s a lot of truth
in that I think ideological diversity
can help groups make better I’d you know
better decisions and come up with more
different possibly better ideas I also
think that an ideologically pluralistic
society is a difficult one to steer
effectively because it’s disposed to
creating these sort of tribal
so if I have deeply different views on
things that matter a lot from you in an
ideal world we get together we you know
we come up with a way to get all the
advantages out of that and none of the
weaknesses but I think there is also a
very strong tendency for us to decide
that we are fundamentally different and
our differences are irreconcilable
because they go all the way down to our
bones to our values and so I have a
little bit less of a rosy picture of
moral pluralism Paul last thirty Seconds
to you we know that when political
parties want to raise money all they do
is put every alleged sin of their
opponents in those letters and they just
watch the shekels come in we’re kind of
doomed in this regard aren’t we we have
our worst instincts and people there’s a
lot of money and votes and power in
exaggerating the differences that exist
between these groups but I I agree with
with these other guys on pluralism is
what we should we just aspire for as
voters and as individuals authoritarians
on both sides will try to shut that down
they’ll try to shut down free speech
they’ll try to shut down communication
and I think we have a sort of moral duty
liberals and conservatives both to to
try to listen and try to try to get
together and try to be pluralistic in
the best of all possible ways amen
that’s a great place to leave it I want
to thank all three of you for coming out
of TVO tonight Rob will are at Stanford
University in California
Becky Toma from Ryerson University
in toronto Paul bloom from Yale
University in New Haven Connecticut it’s
great to have all of you on TV Oh
tonight thanks so much thank you
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Amy Chua discusses her book, “Political Tribes”, with J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy” at a Politics and Prose event at Sixth and I on 2/26/18.
–Our long form analysis of Jordan Peterson, and more specifically the movement that has been created around him, including its ideology, shortcomings, and more
loyalty that extends beyond reason whatthe peterson fans need to understand isthat this type of devotion is partlywhat fuels the unfair criticisms ofpeterson it’s a circle when a publicperson has a huge group of zealousattack dogs who pounce on any critic ofthe movement the movement becomes morefun and attractive to criticise tooutsiders now I’m not saying it shouldbe that way but without question thiskind of cringy fanboy behavior of somany peterson fans is itself what turnspeople off of jordan peterson peopleshouldn’tstrawman peterson people shouldn’tcriticize peterson dishonestly but theadoration of his fans is part of whatfeeds it and you might say oh that’sunfair and I’m agreeing with you I’msaying yeah that is unfair but there aremany peterson fans who would benefitfrom being a little bit more self-awareone of the most disconcerting thingsabout peterson fans is how seriouslythey take themselves something thatopen-minded people with a sort ofhealthy diversity of intellectualinfluences rarely do they rarely takethemselves so seriously most peopleactually learn to become embarrassedabout taking themselves so seriously andthey eventually grow out of it which maybe some peterson fans will do so to bePeterson talks about the importance ofthinking for yourself Peterson givesfans a way of feeling smart withoutactually having to thoroughly study theintellectuals that Peterssites much less the countlessphilosophers with viewpoints thatdirectly contradict Peterson in reallycredible and important ways being aloyal unquestioning Peterson fan doesn’treally demand much of you right it’seasy many in Peterson’s audience arerelying on his interpretations and hisconclusions about philosophical issuesand current events without doing muchthinking on their own and that’s whatgurus do and enable their followers todo
On Saturday, the Times reported that President Trump has requested paperwork that would allow him to quickly pardon several Americans who have been accused or convicted of war crimes, and who have become causes célèbres on Fox News. They include a former Green Beret who has been charged with murdering a man in Afghanistan and a Navy seal platoon chief who has been accused of murdering multiple people in Iraq, including a schoolgirl walking along a river, and whose trial is scheduled to begin next week. A third potential exoneree is part of a group of former Blackwater military contractors who were found guilty of murdering fourteen unarmed Iraqis in 2007. The Times reports that Trump is pursuing an expedited pardon process so that he can officially pardon these men over Memorial Day weekend.
To discuss what this decision would mean, and to understand the history of Americans wanting to place their own actions above the laws of war, I spoke by phone with Scott Shapiro, a professor of law and philosophy at Yale. Shapiro is the co-author, with Oona A. Hathaway, of “The Internationalists: How A Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World,” about the attempts after the First World War to institute a legal regime that would prevent a second one. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why the most outwardly patriotic Americans have long been skeptical of military law, the message President Trump is sending the military, and the dangers of placing troops above the law.
When you saw the news that these pardons were a possibility, what was it that went through your mind? Were there historical parallels, or did it seem like we were in another era?
I thought, immediately, Oh, pardon the war criminals to own the libs—that this was an attempt to trigger me and people like me. The reason I say I’m a little bit surprised at myself for having that reaction was that there is a long history, especially among conservative thinkers, of mistrusting the laws of war and thinking that the prosecution and punishing of American service personnel for defending our country, but not being punctilious about the particular rules of engagement, is unjust and unfair. This brought to mind the My Lai massacre—that was as horrific an act as a violation of the laws of war as you get.
And yet William Calley [a lieutenant who led the Charlie Company’s massacre of hundreds of civilians at My Lai] was somewhat of a folk hero in the United States. The heroes of My Lai, who saved many civilians and reported Charlie Company for what they had done, were vilified by many in the political establishment. Nixon was incredibly upset that William Calley was being prosecuted. He only got three and half years [of house arrest, after Nixon had him removed from prison]. It’s not clear to me how different what Trump is doing is from what Nixon did in the nineteen-seventies.
When you say that there is a long history of conservatives being mistrustful of laws of war, do you mean both international ways of regulating what our troops can do in war, like some sort of world court, and also our own laws or the military’s own laws?
Yes. So John Bolton, for example, has waged a war on the International Criminal Court for many years, since the beginning of its existence, and spent an enormous amount of time when he was in the State Department going around the world, trying to get countries to sign what we’ll call the Article 98 agreements, which basically said that these countries would not coöperate with the court in prosecution of American service personnel, and then denied them foreign aid if they didn’t.
But his objection has been very much about the notion that an international tribunal will prosecute American service personnel. Whereas there is another strand that objects even to our own government, our own military, prosecuting our own service personnel, and there are several strains to it, some of them being understandable, some of them being quite reprehensible. When I say understandable, I think that there are arguments. I don’t think they carry the day, but let me just say that there are at least arguments that make sense.
So one of them is war is hell, and shit happens, and it’s very hard to hold soldiers to such high standards. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous expression, that “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife,” comes to mind—the idea being that, if you’re in that situation, you can’t be expected to follow all the rules perfectly. There’s also the idea that there are too many rules, and that the rules are too constraining and that we’re tying, as they say, our boys’ hands. And it’s especially problematic in cases where there’s an asymmetry, where the U.S. military is fighting a group that doesn’t follow the rules. So it’s not just that we have a lot of rules, we’re fighting other militaries who are ostensibly bound by those rules, too. But, also, what do we do when they’re not following the rules, they hide among civilians.
Those, I think, are arguments that need to be taken seriously, and people have obviously debated them, and it’s not obvious what the solution should be in particular cases. I went and I watched a lot of the Fox News clips about these cases that it seems like Trump was responding to. And they sometimes use these arguments, but they also use the arguments like, “These are our guys and you need to protect them. They’re risking their lives for us and we have to protect them.” And it’s tribalism. Like, “These are our people and it’s ungrateful to turn on them.”
There’s also a sense, I think, that they’re killing terrorists, so what’s the problem? They’re eliminating evil people. And I think that there’s a particular Trumpian flavor to the assault here, which is that they’re attacking the integrity of the military-justice system much in the same way that Trump does when he attacked Mueller. The idea here being, Look, you can’t trust anyone.
Yeah. It’s particularly interesting to go after the military, which is, of course, the most trusted institution in the United States, about the worst people in the world, that is, the war criminals.
Trump had this aspect of his campaign where he would basically say, “I’m smarter than all the generals.” Do you remember that? Everyone remembers the McCain P.O.W. stuff, but there was this weird, understated, The military is not tough enough or smart enough anymore. It’s just another institution that’s been corroded with establishment figures.
And yet, one of the things that Trump has done is devolved a lot more responsibility down to the military, reversing the Obama scheme whereby military plans had to get extensive vetting by the political branches. So Trump is, on the one hand, saying, “I’m smarter than the military,” and yet, “Don’t bother me with this stuff. You deal with it.”
I assume, over time, the military has over all got better about investigating abuses within its ranks. Do you have some sense of even a hundred years ago, the period you wrote about, how much there was a system for investigating the American military for misbehavior?
So I can tell you that my colleague John Fabian Witt has written a lot about this. In “Lincoln’s Code,” he talks about how the system that we have now really evolved from the military commissions set up in the Mexican-American War and then the Civil War, whereby the U.S. military had to figure out what they would do with people who violated the laws of war.
And so, at least from the perspective of the U.S. military, we’ve been working on this for almost two hundred years—and, funnily enough, so much of the laws of war in their modern form was American-driven. It’s a classic example, I think, of Trump trying to undermine institutions that Americans helped create. So it’s this strange feature, but a lot of times there’s a sense that the laws of war are foreign impositions on the American military, interfering with our sovereignty, when in fact they were developed by the U.S. military as a way of enforcing military discipline.
That’s, in some sense, the general point that people misunderstand about the laws of wars: that they really have their origins in military discipline, that militaries around the world recognized the need to have constraints on soldiers for the sake of having a well-run military. And so it’s usually in the military’s interest for service personnel to be constrained in the way that they are. I would imagine that many military commanders are unhappy about this move.
Trump is often compared to authoritarian figures in history. He’s often been compared to Andrew Jackson. But to what degree does Trump remind you of a certain type that you’ve written about, which is someone from a hundred years ago having a certain isolationist streak, but also just a very warlike personality, with extreme jingoism and nationalism, and a contempt for or racism toward other countries and other people. This pardon news being paired with Trump’s apparent uninterest in a war with Iran was interesting.
Well, bellicosity and racism and Eurocentrism contributed enormously to imperialism and colonialism and genocidal wars of the past, for sure. What is interesting is that these attitudes normally led to war rather than what is happening with Trump, which is that it’s being matched with a kind of isolationism. My own view—and I obviously can’t substantiate it—is that the reason Trump is an isolationist is because I don’t think he wants to spend money on brown people. That is, I think he feels, Why are we spending our money and spending lives trying to bring democracy and improve Iraq, or Syria, or spending money on fighting in Iran, where we’re just going to have to pour money into that country? Here, the xenophobia and racism actually contribute to isolationism.
The America Firsters don’t want to get into World War Two in part because they think, Why are we trying to save the Jews? Why are we pouring money to protect these ethnic minorities in Europe when who the hell cares about them? There are definitely strong historical echoes.
I’m not trying to draw a direct parallel, but the America First types who did not want to get America involved in a war in Europe had no problem asserting the Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere and insuring business interests in the United States were taken care of and expanded. And that would be my hunch about the type of war that Trump would be at least open to.
I think that’s right, though it’s hard to imagine what that case would be like. I’ve actually been surprised that Trump hasn’t said, “If Mexico doesn’t pay for the wall, we’ll just go take the money from them somehow.” I’m surprised that he hasn’t threatened some war in order to get the money back for the wall. He has said crazy things—“fire and fury”—about North Korea. Threatening a nuclear war is an outrageous thing to do. Saying, “If Mexico doesn’t pay for the wall, we’ll get it in some way,” doesn’t seem that much crazier. Of course, he seems to have no interest in Venezuela, so it’s hard to see what, exactly, the economic interests would be there. It’s so hard to know, and also tiresome to try to guess, what are you going to do next?
What are your biggest concerns, going forward, about what pardons like these would do?
I’m very worried about it. I think, historically, the origins of these rules emanate from military discipline and the sense that the military has to have control over soldiers and control their behavior and keep them focussed on the military mission at hand. And to follow the rules is extremely important for the success of the mission. The golden rule of counterinsurgency is, you want to make sure that you kill more terrorists than you make.
One of the cases that the New York Times reports about is pardoning this group of marines who urinated on deceased Afghans. Is it really helpful for our counterinsurgency mission for people to know that that’s what U.S. military personnel do, and the President just pardons it because it’s no big deal to pee on a dead Afghan?
There are so many ways that this is both an insult to the military and bad for the military. And the ironies of that are plenty.
Yeah, right. So there’s that. This is also really bad for morale. I’ve taught in R.O.T.C., I’ve taught these young officers in training, and they’re taught that these rules are super serious and that they really go to the essence of what it is to be an honorable officer. And then to have the President of the United States say, “Actually, the rules don’t really matter”—what does it do to their sense of what enterprise they’re participating in, No. 1? No. 2, how do they get their men to follow the rules if the Commander-in-Chief is saying it doesn’t matter? It’s just a recipe for disaster.
There are so many ironies here, but one of the cases that Trump is considering, based on the New York Times reports, is the case of the Blackwater military contractors. The Bush Administration tried so hard to get the Iraqis not to prosecute these people, because, they said, “Don’t worry, trust us. You can trust the American criminal-justice system. We’ll take care of it.” And they really held the Iraqi government at bay at a very difficult time with the idea that, We can take care of it.
Why would countries accept that going forward? They’d say, “Look what you’re doing.” So it’s not only bad from a military-mission perspective, but it’s also bad from the sovereigntist perspective. If what you’re really worried about is other countries exerting control over American service personnel, you’re giving them every reason to do it if you do this.
Or to want to create an international system where these things are taken care of, since America’s not going to take care of it on its own.
Yeah, exactly. It’s just more fuel for the people who say, “America has lost its moral way. We can’t trust them. We really need an international criminal court.”
I should also say that, for all these complex reasons of history and how Americans think of this stuff, at the same time, there’s probably a fairly simple thing going on, which is that, if this was not going on in Muslim countries, this probably would not have become a cause célèbre on Fox and the President might not be doing this.
Yeah. When Charlie Company mowed down men, women, children, old people, on the one hand, they were Vietnamese, and so, “Who cares?” But also, talk about historical parallels, after William Calley was convicted of murder, George Wallace visited him and said, “Look, I don’t see why we should be so upset about a soldier killing more communists.” And so, there is a way in which when you dehumanize and vilify a group, the fact that the military killed some more of them, well, how bad, really, is it?
He’s crisscrossing Europe because he believes it’s a bellwether for the United States. The scary thing is he could be right.
MILAN — Italy is a political laboratory. During the Cold War, the question was whether the United States could keep the Communists from power. Then Italy produced Silvio Berlusconi and scandal-ridden showman politics long before the United States elected Donald Trump. Now, on the eve of European Parliament elections likely to result in a rightist lurch, it has an anti-immigrant, populist government whose strongman, Matteo Salvini, known to his followers as “the Captain,” is the Continent’s most seductive exponent of the new illiberalism.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, has been close to Salvini for a while. That’s no surprise. Bannon is the foremost theorist and propagator of the global nationalist, anti-establishment backlash. He’s Trotsky to the Populist International. He sensed the disease eating at Western democracies — a globalized elite’s abandonment of the working class and the hinterland — before anyone. He spurred a revolt to make the invisible citizen visible and to save Western manufacturing jobs from what he calls the Chinese “totalitarian economic hegemon.”
Now Bannon is crisscrossing Europe ahead of the elections, held Thursday through next Sunday. He’s in Berlin one day, Paris the next. As he explained during several recent conversations and a meeting in New York, he believes that “Europe is six months to a year ahead of the United States on everything.” As with Brexit’s foreshadowing of Trump’s election, a victory for the right in Europe “will energize our base for 2020.” The notion of Wisconsin galvanized by Brussels may seem far-fetched, but then so did a President Trump.
Polls indicate that Salvini’s League party, transformed from a northern secessionist movement into the national face of the xenophobic right, will get over 30 percent of the Italian vote, up from 6.2 percent in 2014. Anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic parties look set to make the greatest gains, taking as many as 35 percent of the seats in Parliament, which influences European Union policy for more than a half-billion people. In France, Marine Le Pen’s nationalists are running neck-and-neck with President Emmanuel Macron’s pro-Europe party. In Britain, Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party has leapt ahead of the center-right and center-left.
Salvini, whose party formed a government a year ago with the out-with-the-old-order Five Star Movement, is a central figure in this shift. The coalition buried mainstream parties. He is, Bannon told me, “the most important guy on the stage right now — he’s charismatic, plain-spoken, and he understands the machinery of government. His rallies are as intense as Trump’s. Italy is the center of politics — a country that has embraced nationalism against globalism, shattered the stereotypes, blown past the old paradigm of left and right.”
For all the upheaval, I found Italy intact, still tempering transactional modernity with humanity, still finding in beauty consolation for dysfunction. The new right has learned from the past. It does not disappear people. It does not do mass militarization. It’s subtler.
- It scapegoats migrants,
- instills fear,
- glorifies an illusory past (what the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “retrotopia”),
- exalts machismo,
- mocks do-gooder liberalism and
- turns the angry drumbeat of social media into its hypnotic minute-by-minute mass rally.
Salvini, the suave savior, is everywhere other than in his interior minister’s office at Rome’s Viminale Palace. He’s out at rallies or at the local cafe in his trademark blue “Italia” sweatshirt. He’s at village fairs and conventions. He’s posting on Facebook up to 30 times a day to his 3.7 million followers, more than any other European politician. (Macron has 2.6 million followers.) He’s burnishing the profile of the tough young pol (he’s 46) who
- keeps migrants out,
- loosens gun laws,
- brandishes a sniper rifle and
- winks at Fascism —
all leavened with Mr.-Nice-Guy images of him sipping espresso or a Barolo.
His domination of the headlines is relentless. When, during my visit, a woman was gang raped near Viterbo, his call for “chemical castration” of the perpetrators led the news cycle for 24 hours. Like Trump, he’s a master of saying the unsayable to drown out the rest.
“I find Salvini repugnant, but he seems to have an incredible grip on society,” Nathalie Tocci, the director of Italy’s Institute of International Relations, told me. No wonder then that the European far-right has chosen Milan for its big pre-election rally, bringing together Salvini, Le Pen, Jörg Meuthen of the Alternative for Germany party and many other rightist figures.
A nationalist tide is still rising. “We need to mobilize,” Bannon told me. “This is not an era of persuasion, it’s an era of mobilization. People now move in tribes. Persuasion is highly overrated.”
Bannon gives the impression of a man trying vainly to keep up with the intergalactic speed of his thoughts. Ideas cascade. He offered me a snap dissection of American politics: blue-collar families were suckers: their sons and daughters went off to die in unwon wars; their equity evaporated with the 2008 meltdown, destroyed by “financial weapons of mass destruction”; their jobs migrated to China. All that was needed was somebody to adopt a new vernacular, say to heck with all that, and promise to stop “unlimited illegal immigration” and restore American greatness. His name was Trump. The rest is history.
In Europe, Bannon said, the backlash brew included several of these same factors. The “centralized government of Europe” and its austerity measures, uncontrolled immigration and the sense of people in the provinces that they were “disposable” produced the Salvini phenomenon and its look-alikes across the Continent.
“In Macron’s vision of a United States of Europe, Italy is South Carolina to France’s North Carolina,” Bannon told me. “But Italy wants to be Italy. It does not want to be South Carolina. The European Union has to be a union of nations.”
The fact is Italy is Italy, unmistakably so, with its high unemployment, stagnation, archaic public administration and chasm between the prosperous north (which Salvini’s League once wanted to turn into a secessionist state called Padania) and the southern Mezzogiorno. Salvini’s coalition has done nothing to solve these problems even as it has
- demonized immigrants,
- attacked an independent judiciary and
- extolled an “Italians first” nation.
A federal Europe remains a chimera, even if the euro crisis revealed the need for budgetary integration. Bannon’s vision of Brussels bureaucrats devouring national identity for breakfast is largely a straw-man argument, useful for making the European Union the focus of all 21st-century angst.
The union has delivered peace and stability. It’s the great miracle of the second half of the 20th century; no miracle ever marketed itself so badly. It has also suffered from ideological exhaustion, remoteness, division and the failure to agree on an effective shared immigration policy — opening the way for Salvini’s salvos to hit home in a country that is the first stop for many African migrants.
Salvini grew up in Milan in a middle-class family, dropped out of university, joined the League in its early days in the 1990s and was shaped by years working at Radio Padania where he would listen to Italians’ gripes. “What he heard was complaints about immigrants, Europe, the rich,” Emanuele Fiano, a center-left parliamentarian, told me. “He’s run with that and is now borderline dangerous.”
The danger is not exit from the European Union — the government has come to its senses over that — or some Fascist reincarnation. It’s what Fabrizio Barca, a former minister for territorial cohesion, called the “Orbanization of the country,” in a reference to Viktor Orban, the right-wing Hungarian leader. In other words, insidious domination through the evisceration of independent checks and balances, leading Salvini to the kind of stranglehold on power enjoyed by Orban (with a pat on the back from Trump) or by Vladimir Putin. “The European Union has been ineffective against Orban,” Barca noted. Worse, it has been feckless.
Another threat, as in Trump’s United States, is of moral collapse. “I am not a Fascist but. …” is a phrase increasingly heard in Italy, with some positive judgment on Mussolini to round off the sentence. Salvini, in the judgment of Claudio Gatti, whose book “The Demons of Salvini” was just published in Italian, is “post-Fascist” — he refines many of its methods for a 21st-century audience.
Barca told me the abandonment of rural areas — the closing of small hospitals, marginal train lines, high schools — lay behind Salvini’s rise. Almost 65 percent of Italian land and perhaps 25 percent of its population have been affected by these cuts. “Rural areas and the peripheries, the places where people feel like nobody, are home to the League and Five Star,” he said. To the people there, Salvini declares: I will defend you. He does not offer a dream. He offers protection — mainly against the concocted threat of migrants, whose numbers were in fact plummeting before he took office because of an agreement reached with Libya.
The great task before the parties of the center-left and center-right that will most likely be battered in this election is to reconnect. They must restore a sense of recognition to the forgotten of globalization. Pedro Sánchez, the socialist Spanish prime minister, just won an important electoral victory after pushing through a 22 percent rise in the minimum wage, the largest in Spain in 40 years. There’s a lesson there. The nationalist backlash is powerful, but pro-European liberal sentiment is still stronger. If European elections feel more important, it’s also because European identity is growing.
As for the curiously prescient Italian political laboratory, Bannon is investing in it. He’s established an “Academy for the Judeo-Christian West” in a 13th-century monastery outside Rome. Its courses, he told me, will include “history, aesthetics and just plain instruction in how to get stuff done, including facing up to pressure, mock TV interviews with someone from CNN or The Guardian ripping your face off.”
Bannon described himself as an admirer of George Soros — “his methods, not his ideology” — and the way Soros had built up “cadres” throughout Europe. The monastery is the nationalist response to Soros’s liberalism. There’s a war of ideas going on in Italy and the United States. To shun the fight is to lose it. I am firmly in the liberal camp, but to win it helps to know and strive to understand one’s adversary.