29 April 2019

In search of the patriotic center

Most people would assume that patriotism and nationalism are synonymous, but Michael Gerson argues otherwise in his latest diatribe against self-styled nationalist Donald Trump. "The president's defiant nationalism is strangely lacking in basic patriotism," Gerson writes. How can that be? For Gerson, it seems to come down to two failings of Trumpian nationalism. First, Trumpism fails to idealize the exceptional goodness of the U.S. To show this, Gerson cites comments he interprets as proof that Trump sees his own country as little different from other nations. Exhibit A is Trump's "You think our country's so innocent?" comment, made when he was pressed to distance himself from the "killer" Vladimir Putin. Less well known is something the President said when pressed to criticize Turkey for cracking down on dissent: "When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don't think we're a very good messenger." It's unclear what Trump thought Americans were "bad" at at that moment, but clarification wouldn't matter to Gerson, who is just as critical of a left wing that "finds the meaning of America in its defects." Comments like those cited are hardly outrageous regardless of the source, but the offense Gerson takes helps us understand the distinction he draws between patriotism and what he might call mere nationalism. However skeptical the President may be about American exceptionalism or the nation's moral superiority, his attitude clearly doesn't compromise his commitment to defending his country or its interests as he understands them. That commitment falls short for Gerson because Trumpian nationalism is a materialist form of conservatism concerned with enhancing American wealth and military power as ends unto themselves, regardless of what anyone thinks America stands for. Patriotism, for Gerson, is distinct and superior to nationalism because it's a twofold moral commitment, both to the nation itself and to a moral purpose that justifies the nation's claim to exceptional power, if not its very existence. To be a patriot, in other words, is to be loyal to American values above all. In Gerson's own words, "love of country entails a love of decency and human dignity" allegedly absent in Trumpism. There's no semantic basis for the patriot-nationalist distinction, of course, nor any basis apart from recent history's identification of "nationalism" with military aggression and hatred for minorities. Self-conscious nationalists would seem to have every right to challenge the distinction and claim the "patriot" label for themselves, but Gerson has another reason for denying it to Trumpian nationalists.

It's highly debatable whether patriotism must treat national power as a means to a higher end, but Gerson also argues that real patriots should recognize their nation's real enemies, while Trump either fails or refuses to do so. You probably can guess where this is headed. Trumpian nationalists will not dispute that the nation has enemies, but their lists may have at least one significant difference from Gerson's. The columnist recalls that Trump jumped the shark for him when, as President-elect in late 2016, he questioned intelligence reports of Russian meddling in the election campaign. Trump's advisers made the not-irrational point that some of the Russophobe accusers "are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction." That remark apparently convinced Gerson that "Trump and his team are willing to sell out the people defending our country for political reasons." Worse, he finds proof in the Mueller Report that "the Trump team anticipated and welcomed the practical assistance of a hostile power" in 2016. In Gerson's mind, Russia isn't necessarily an existential threat, but it is an almost inevitable enemy of both the United States and what he sees as American values. Whoever fails to recognize this is no patriot, as far as Gerson is concerned. As usual, a Russophobic commentator ignores all the ways, especially in the economic realm, in which the Trump administration challenges Russia, because none of that has anything to do with why he thinks we need to challenge Russia.  An American patriot, by Gerson's standard, must defend democratic values and universal human rights against the rising tide of authoritarianism in Russia, Turkey and elsewhere, while a nationalist, presumably, thinks he can maximize American power without concerning himself with ideas or values but actually betrays his country by neglecting them.

2020 is going to be a hard year for Gerson. The moral vacuum he perceives in Trumpism leaves an opportunity for the opposition to claim the mantel of patriotism, but many on the left have reasons of their own to see their country as "bad" or not "so innocent." However sincere or legitimate their criticisms may be, Gerson warns that a successful challenger to Trump will need to affirm that "American ideals are a force for good in history, and that America is a force for good in the world." In other words, there's no place for the anti-imperialist left or domestic politicians preoccupied with mistreatment of minorities on a pragmatic Democratic platform. This isn't good news for many Americans for whom Trump has confirmed the fundamentally flawed nature of the American experiment, not to mention all those eager to vent their anger at the disrespect they feel Trump has shown them. It should be possible to vent that anger yet argue that Trump represents a deviation from a benign American norm, but it seems less possible now than it would have been before Trump was elected. It should also be possible to assert an essential goodness in the American experiment without declaring the sort of crusade against authoritarianism that would thrill Gerson. It might be wise for Democrats to tone down their anger at America, as Gerson advises, but if he wants to topple Trump next year he should be prepared to scale down his demands as well. He could start by acknowledging that one can run against Donald Trump without also running against Vladimir Putin, and not be a traitor to the cause or the country.

17 April 2019

Debating the terms of debate

Daniel O'Connor, a Jewish student who attends college in Virginia after graduating from an Albany school, is understandably sick and tired of being called a Nazi. He belongs to Turning Point USA, which he describes as "one of the fastest growing student organizations in the nation." As a Turning Point member, he gets called a Nazi, from what we can tell from his article in an Albany paper, because he promotes "limited government, personal liberty and the free-market system." O'Connor notes that Turning Point has no set position on "social issues" and welcomes people from all walks of life. Nevertheless, campus leftists call Turning Point a "hate" group. Unsurprisingly, O'Connor blames this on the intellectual laziness of most college students, claiming that "many young people have never been challenged by opposing ideas during their entire education." You can't help but agree that it's incredibly lazy, if also impulsively satisfying to some, to call all right-wingers Nazis, even if you defer to the simplistic mindset that places Nazis and Republican conservatives in the common category of "cruelty." Once someone talks about limited government it should be clear that that person isn't a Nazi in any historically meaningful sense. Labels aside, the problem people like O'Connor face on campuses is the assumption that their position is essentially a cruel one. O'Connor challenges those who disagree with his ideology to "think of a counterargument, defend your position, try to poke holes in mine." There's something naive, if not clueless, in that challenge --  and not because O'Connor's opponents are uninterested in debate.

O'Connor doesn't seem to realize that the debate has become more radical or fundamental than whatever he prepared for. Because more people are talking about socialism lately, he expects a familiar debate about "free thought, individualism and keeping government out of people's way." Those are all means to an end that many on the left have rejected, along with many of the first premises of the usual Cold War debates. Leftists today, I suspect, are less interested in the particulars of socialism or the differences between Marxian or "democratic" socialism than in affirming an absolute, unconditional entitlement to life and dignity. From their standpoint, anything that smacks of the old sink-or-swim ethos or denies that a civilized world owes everyone a living might as well be Nazism, given its apparent indifference to whether people live or die. If O'Connor is any indication, many Republican conservatives haven't caught on to how the terms of debate have changed and so are sincerely caught by surprise by the unprecedented vehemence with which their old talking points are rejected. They can lecture the left on how to debate, but if Republican conservatives really want a meaningful debate they need to put away their Adam Smith and their Edmund Burke and their Ronald Reagan playbook and find fresh answers elsewhere to this more fundamental challenge. The issue, as far as people like O'Connor are concerned, shouldn't be whether socialism or "big government" can ever give people what they want, but whether people are right to want what they want in the first place. Obviously, there's no guarantee that this debate will be more civil than those the O'Connors of our time already have endured, since it still boils down to whether the world owes anyone a living, but at least it would have people talking less about Marx or Lenin or Stalin -- "I won't call you a Stalinist," O'Connor promises -- and more about the desires and fears that really drive people today.

01 April 2019

Is this what authoritarianism looks like?

Over the weekend, Turkey's ruling party lost municipal elections in the country's two main cities, Ankara and Istanbul. These results are widely seen as a popular rebuke to President Erdogan for the poor state of the country's economy. That sounds like politics as usual, except that Americans have been led to believe by many reporters and commentators that this sort of thing shouldn't happen in Turkey. Erdogan is seen as one of the democratically-elected "authoritarian" leaders around the world who use fair means and foul to consolidate their personal power while making elections ever more difficult for opposition parties. According to the "authoritarian" scenario, Erdogan should have rigged things so his party would win these elections, but while some suspicious observers note that his party plans to appeal some of the election results, in theory things never should have reached that point. Likewise, Nicolas Maduro's party should not have lost control of Venezuela's legislature because, as an alleged authoritarian and the heir to Hugo Chavez, he should have rigged the system to guarantee majorities for his party. It doesn't follow from any of this that no political leader ever schemes to corrupt the electoral process for his own benefit, but perhaps we shouldn't assume that such things happen as often as some Americans like to believe.

Americans are quick to decide when foreign leaders have overstayed their welcomes, even when those leaders' constituents appear to disagree. It grows more difficult for Americans to imagine leaders retaining popularity for so long that they can continue to win elections, in the face of varying degrees of opposition, beyond the point when we think a withdrawal from public life is appropriate. We take our phenomenon of "fatigue" with presidents and their parties after two terms to be the global democratic norm when there is no reason to believe that other nations are or should be as polarized ideologically as the U.S. is. When nations and electorates deviate from our model, our tendency is to assume that their leaders are pulling a fast one on the people with an eye toward doing away with elections altogether, or rendering the franchise no more than a rubber stamp. No doubt many Americans felt that way about Franklin Roosevelt, since his four election victories are the main reason the Constitution was amended to limit presidents to two terms. Objectively, however, it's hard to think of FDR as an authoritarian unless you're a limited-government laissez-faire fanatic. Still, the constitution was amended to give the two-term tradition he broke the force of law, and it was done without much controversy because Americans, more or less reasonably, dislike the idea of an indispensable leader. Liberalism presumes that any number of people can rise to any occasion, and that's really how it should be in a democratic republic. But it doesn't follow from that presumption that someone who thinks himself uniquely qualified to lead indefinitely, or as long as the voters want him, is an inevitable tyrant. In any event, we can't understand the persistent if controversial popularity of so-called authoritarians, or the actual vulnerability of their positions, without a better understanding of their countries. Our temptation is to reduce the political issues in countries like Turkey to whether the strong man is as great as he thinks he is, when voters in most places from Venezuela to Iran have material as well as (or "instead of") dogmatic reasons for voting as they do. We might better measure the potential for any sort of authoritarianism in any country by paying more attention to its voters than to its politicians, but that might be too much work for people who want to blame politicians for every problem at home or around the world.