interesting times

Can the West Survive Trump?

For some reason Merkel doesn’t trust America’s leader. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The gnawingly persistent question in the Trump years so far is a relatively simple one: Is this reparable? By which I mean: Can Trump’s admixture of malevolence, corruption, and incompetence be survived without permanent damage? Is this a minor heart attack from which this democracy and the world can soon recover … or is it a major one whose consequences are, in some respects, permanent?

The truth is: We don’t yet know (although Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord is beyond depressing). Can we at some point reconstruct a common set of facts after such a shameless torrent of lies and fantasies from the very top? Can some minimal level of decency and dignity be returned to the White House and to our public discourse? Is there any viable synthesis to be struck between the two Americas divided by a widening gyre of mutual incomprehension? The long run suggests all of this is possible, if currently hard to envision. Time heals. America survived the 1860s and the 1960s. But there’s one thing about today’s political darkness that will be close to impossible to undo.

And that’s the very concept of a united, democratic West. It emerged out of the ashes of the Second World War, bringing similar democracies together across the Atlantic in opposition to totalitarianism in all its forms. At its center was Germany as a free, democratic, peaceful, and unified country. It was a triumph primarily of the United States, cemented in place in due course by NATO and the European Union. This Euro-American axis kept the peace, created unparalleled prosperity for both continents, and defeated the Soviet Union peacefully before it kept post-Soviet Russia’s great power meddling in check. How often in history has a conquering power turned around and rebuilt and defended and protected the country it defeated and occupied? How often has it then sustained that core assurance for decades?

And in a few months, Trump has all but trashed it. NATO’s Article 5 — the rock-solid assurance that an attack on any alliance member will be treated as an attack on all — was always the linchpin, and its credibility, especially with the Russians, was essential. Every single American president has therefore immediately, reflexively, emphatically reaffirmed it. And yet Trump pointedly and pettily refused to last week — even though an explicit assurance was apparently in the original text of his speech, and even though Mattis, McMaster, et al. know perfectly well why it is indispensable. Without this unquestioned trust, a defensive alliance falls apart. Yes, there is a real question of the European commitment to defense spending — and Trump had every right to bring that up. But by threatening to withhold military support without such an increase in spending, Trump turned an alliance into a protection racket. Such rackets depend on fear, not trust. He effectively — in a fit of apparent pique — threw away the work and lives of generations like a child tosses a toy from a bassinet.

That’s why the most significant words of the Trump era were uttered last week by a German chancellor: “The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over. I’ve experienced that in the last few days. We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.” And we have a French president equating Putin, Trump, and Erdogan as threats to European unity and democracy: “My handshake with [Trump], it wasn’t innocent … Donald Trump, the Turkish president, or the Russian president see relationships in terms of a balance of power.” Think of that for a moment. The American president appears to the Europeans as interchangeable with Erdogan and Putin. He’s one of the thugs.

Deep damage was done to the alliance in the Bush years with the invasion of Iraq and, especially, over the use of torture. But Bush still invaded that tragic country for the sake of what he misguidedly thought of as democracy, and at least attempted to euphemize the torture away. He sustained the appearance of distinctive Western principles, even if he undermined them. Trump, in contrast, has thrown even those façades away. I don’t quite know how the free world un-sees what it has just seen or un-hears what it has just heard.

A funny thing is happening to Theresa May’s unstoppable march to a massive new majority in Britain’s parliament: It appears to have stopped. I’d like to think this may have something to do with Trump: He is so repellent to almost anyone in the civilized world outside the U.S., he appears to be weakening reactionism’s appeal in Europe. After the Dutch far right stumbled this spring, and Macron beat Le Pen more decisively than expected, we now see Angela Merkel’s polling having perked up since March. But in Britain, the collapse of the Tories in the polls since the campaign started has been nothing short of remarkable. They began the campaign with a lead of close to 20 points; the latest poll — probably an outlier — gives them a mere 3 percent lead over a Labour Party led by someone (Jeremy Corbyn) slightly to the left of Noam Chomsky. In the poll of polls, Labour has gained 12 points in the last few weeks and the Tories have gone nowhere.

What’s happening? Maybe reality about Brexit is sinking in — as Britain’s growth slows dramatically, and as a Macron-buoyed EU leadership girds itself against Britain in negotiations. As things have shaken out, it looks more and more likely that Britain may crash out of the EU in two years’ time with no backup plan — an economic cliff that could make 2008 look like a mild economic interruption. And few doubt that May has run a terrible campaign. She has made the Clinton mistake: She seems to believe that simply by not being her unelectable, extremist opponent, she’ll win. She has thereby played it very safe — rarely encountering real live voters in retail politics, focusing her campaign on her own “strong, stable” leadership, reversing some unpopular policies and then refusing to be honest about it, and declining to take part in a debate with her main opponents. Suddenly, it seems that Brits have remembered how she came to power — largely by default last year after the Conservative Party tore itself apart after the Brexit result. She’s never been a good campaigner. Even her reputation of being a “competent” manager has been undermined by the shambolic campaign itself.

You thought I was brutal about Clinton’s abilities? Here’s Rod Liddle in the Spectator of London (a Tory magazine) comparing May to a “fridge-freezer which has been faultily connected by a man called Trevor for five quid, cash in hand, and which is now full of decomposing Crispy Pancakes. There is no vision, there is no chutzpah. Just the bland repetition of meaningless phrases.” No, I’m not translating that.

More interesting to me is the sudden appeal of Labour’s far-left manifesto: It’s a Bernie barn burner. Huge sums for free college and education, massive infrastructure spending, ending government contracts for companies based in tax havens, more money for health care — it’s a left-populist agenda that is particularly popular with the younger generation — over a million of whom have registered to vote since the election was announced. May will almost certainly win — but if her parliamentary majority stays roughly where it is, or increases only marginally, the momentum behind Brexit could seriously begin to unravel. Stay tuned.

“Two, four, six, eight. This time you cannot escape!” and “Hey hey! Ho ho! These racist teachers have got to go!” Those were two of the chants of the social-justice-warrior students as they rampaged with impunity across Evergreen College campus in Washington State last week. At one point, they cornered one professor, Bret Weinstein, outside his office, wouldn’t let him leave when he wanted to, and turned the campus cops away when they tried to intervene. His crime? He objected to a Day of Absence at the college, designed to increase racial awareness on campus. Most years, these days are marked by students of color leaving campus to let white students and faculty appreciate what multiculturalism contributes to the community. Fair enough, I guess. But this past year, the rules were changed — and all white people were asked to leave the campus for one day. Weinstein objected — arguing that this was a coercive act of temporary racial segregation — and thereby violated his core principles. He explained why he was going to stay put, in a super-reasonable email; he’s a huge lefty himself — check out this op-ed he once wrote on Occupy Wall Street; and the video of his attempt to dialogue with his physically intimidating inquisitors reveals him as a highly rational, and remarkably even-tempered fellow. None of that mattered. Hatred — and for once that word is truly salient — prevailed.

What makes this incident particularly troubling is not just the chanting, the underlying menace, the foul language, and the racist rhetoric (for the students, white is a reflexively dirty word), but that it represents a critical moment in which the physical space of a campus is taken over by the social-justice left. Not content with hijacking the curriculum, in forcing race reeducation programs on students and faculty, and in policing the hiring of faculty to exclude heretics, the SJW movement now wants to add an element of danger to the mix. Professor Weinstein has been informed it may not be physically safe for him or his students to go on campus (he is now teaching his class elsewhere), and, according to Weinstein, the administration has told campus police to allow this situation to continue. The demand of the mob, moreover, is not merely to protest Weinstein or to physically intimidate him. It is to have him fired — because he objects to mandatory racial segregation in a publicly funded university.

But isn’t this logically where the social-justice movement has to end? If white oppression is forever, and we live in a multiracial society, isn’t racial segregation some kind of liberation? Shouldn’t whites be forced to leave certain areas — so that minorities can experience some relief from white tyranny? Rather than an oppressive system of racial supremacy, segregation in this worldview becomes a form of liberation. It becomes the mother of all safe spaces.

And the future suddenly, chillingly, looks something a little like the past.

See you next Friday.

Can the West Survive Trump?