It is possible to agree with some things Donald Trump has said and think that he is an authoritarian demagogue who represents the worst of our nation’s impulses. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible for anyone not to agree with something Trump has said — the GOP nominee has been on both sides of nearly every major issue in American politics (and quite a few minor ones). Everyone from Noam Chomsky to Dick Cheney can find something worth seconding in Trump’s back catalogue of political musings.
This point might seem obvious to you. If so, then you are not Daily Beast columnist Jamie Kirchick.
On Monday, Kirchick wrote a piece titled “Beware the Hillary Clinton-Loathing, Donald Trump-Loving Useful Idiots of the Left.” In the column, Kirchick observes that Donald Trump once said that he was uncomfortable with the idea of American exceptionalism — and (gasp) many left-wing thinkers agree! Thus, Kirchick reasons, all left-wing critics of American foreign policy must be “Trump fans” who are recklessly “validating” a “reactionary.” That may sound like a caricature of his argument, but the cartoonishness is Kirchick’s own. After (justifiably) mocking leftists who believe Trump’s election might usefully “heighten the contradictions,” Kirchick writes:
But it is the second group of progressive Trump fans, subtler in their sympathies, who warrant the most concern. These are the so-called anti-imperialists who harbor deep revulsion at the idea of American power being used for good in the world. America, they believe, is more often than not a source of evil and disorder—a jaundiced view of our global role that they share with the Republican nominee …
“Trump is right, we are flawed messengers,” declared radical left-wing Brooklyn College political science professor Corey Robin in reaction to Trump’s Times interview. As evidence, Robin cited a United Nations hearing on American police brutality, where delegates from human rights luminaries like Pakistan, Russia, China, and Turkey denounced Uncle Sam. “No matter the DC freakout over Trump NYT interview, think his tacit repudiation of US exceptionalism is praiseworthy,” echoed Washington Post blogger Ishaan Tharoor …
… Unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct,” Trump declared in his first foreign policy address back in April.
Such words are music to the ears of those on the left who paint Hillary Clinton as a “warmonger” for her mainstream foreign policy views and traditional support for the American-led liberal world order.
The only alternative to Trump’s frothy isolationism is Clinton’s liberal hawkishness,” sighs The New Republic’s Jeet Heer. Writing for The Electronic Intifada, whose worldview is exactly what it sounds like, Rania Khalek concludes that “Clinton is also dangerous to world stability. And unlike Trump, she has the blood on her hands to prove it.” Though Khalek admits that “Trump is riling up fascist sentiments,” she says that “he’s doing so by tapping into legitimate anger at the negative consequences of trickle-down neoliberal economics driven by establishment politicians like Clinton.”
It’s worth noting that all of the thinkers Kirchick cites in these passages have publicly denounced Trump, and many have indicated a preference to see Hillary Clinton elected in November. It’s also worth noting that Kirchick has expressed public opposition to the Iran deal during this campaign cycle — a jaundiced view of American diplomacy that he shares with the Republican nominee. In fact, the foreign-policy speech Trump delivered on Monday was far more consistent with Kirchick’s stated views than with those of the left-wingers he casts as closet Trumpists. Does the fact that Kirchick agrees with Trump that withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq was a disastrous mistake mean that Kirchick is a Trump “admirer”? What about the fact that he, like Trump, is a raging hypocrite?
But Kirchick’s piece is less significant for its deceit and hypocrisy than for the way it attempts to dismiss critiques of interventionist foreign policy without actually making a substantive case against those critiques. For champions of the bipartisan consensus on issues of national security and globalization, Trump is an awfully convenient figurehead for challenges to the status quo. In those short paragraphs excerpted above, observe how many ideas Kirchick is able to dismiss simply by equating them with support for Donald Trump:
- American exceptionalism is a dangerous notion that keeps Americans from being able to recognize their own country’s shortcomings on issues of human rights.
- Hillary Clinton’s liberal interventionism is dangerous and often exacerbates the crises it seeks to solve.
- Trump is tapping into legitimate anger over three decades of neoliberal economic policy.
Kirchick never attempts to engage any of these ideas and show why they are misguided. Instead, he suggests that such positions are dangerous because they “validate” Trump. This despite the fact that Trump is now running on an aggressive foreign policy that disdains international law and human rights, and, on the same day Kirchick’s piece was published, vowed to promote “the exceptional virtues” of America’s way of life.
Kirchick’s method of combating dissent is significant, because it is hardly unique to him. Nor is it unique to other dishonest polemicists like him. In an otherwise illuminating piece in Politico, public policy scholar Justin Gest illustrates how this habit of dismissing challenges to orthodoxy — by linking them to Trump — can manifest more innocently. Gest’s piece is about the surprisingly broad appeal of Trump’s “nativist” politics to the Republican base. It includes this paragraph:
It is worth acknowledging that these survey results hold some risk for the Democratic Party as well. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has also been tugged to more populist stances by white, nativist voters on the left.
During the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton called for a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants and, at one point, promised to spare the entire non-violent, undocumented population from deportation. The only conceivable “nativist” policy that Gest could be referring to is Clinton’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
There are a lot of reasons why some Democratic voters oppose the TPP, and almost none can be described as specifically “white” or “nativist.” Is it xenophobic to think that we shouldn’t raise the price of pharmaceuticals in poorer nations by imposing American patent law on them? Or that, if a trade agreement establishes an investor-state dispute settlement process, it should also establish similar mechanisms of trade enforcement for labor unions and environmentalists?
Despite its intellectual bankruptcy, the idea that opposition to a specific trade agreement is tantamount to supporting a Trumpian turn away from international cooperation is pervasive in American discourse. Asked about the growing opposition to the TPP earlier this month, President Obama replied, “Well, right now, I’m president, and I’m for it … And I think I’ve got the better argument. And I’ve made this argument before. I’ll make it again: We are part of a global economy. We’re not reversing that.”
If you do not support this specific trade agreement, you don’t want America to be part of a global economy. If you do not support Hillary Clinton’s proposal for a no-fly zone in Syria, you must want to hand the nuclear codes to Donald Trump. If you think American exceptionalism enabled a disastrous invasion of Iraq, you are a useful idiot for Vladimir Putin.
Champions of the elite consensus on trade, immigration, and foreign affairs should defend their policy preferences on the merits, not by likening their skeptics to Donald Trump. Doing the latter only heightens the suspicion that the case for the status quo is weaker than its defenders care to admit.