interesting times

Can the Republic Strike Back?

Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Whatever else it will be, Tuesday will be a relief. We will finally find out where we are in the surreal dystopia of the last two years. We will see, in a tangible way, what America now is.

These years have been overwhelmed and saturated by a single figure with no political experience, who won almost 3 million fewer votes than his opponent, has had consistently lower approval numbers than any of his recent predecessors, and speaks and acts in ways no previous president ever has. He has cast a staggering spell over a hefty segment of the population, and he has earned the intense loathing of the rest. And for these very reasons, it has been tortuously hard to see what is in front of our noses.

Is this the new normal? Or has this been a detour into the freak zone, with a president accidentally elected, a major party temporarily hypnotized, but with a population still aware of something called reality? We’ve tried and tried these past two years to figure that out, and there are many layers of meaning here, but we haven’t had a clear test of anything. Polls are not elections. Only elections are elections. We are entering the human phase of the trials.

There are few historical guides. It is hard to think of a precedent for a president who endorses violence against political foes, sees the Justice Department as his own personal prosecutor, calls the press “the enemy of the people,” tears children from parents, brags of multiple sexual assaults, threatens to lock up his opponents, enthuses about war crimes, “falls in love” with the foulest dictator on the planet, refuses to divest of personal holdings in office, lambastes allies, treats the Treasury as a casino, actively endorses the poisoning of the environment, destabilizes NATO, baits minorities, lies incessantly, and oversees a resurgence of the white nationalist right. Any single gesture in any one of these areas would have been political death for most previous presidents. But we live in a time when we have come to expect that all this can now empower and even reward an American politician, rather than ruin him.

Next Tuesday will tell us whether that expectation is misplaced. Our polarization is so strong a real wave will be hard to achieve. But a president with this record and of this character can still be rebuked, repelled, and rejected, and, more importantly, so can his party. I know no more than anyone else, and yet I feel in my bones the opposite of what I felt two years ago. Then, it seemed obvious to me that Hillary Clinton had not sealed the deal, or come close to it, and that the freshness of the underdog and the populist tenor of the times could easily give us a Trump presidency. Now, it feels like the opposite. My instincts tell me that every single person whom this president has dismissed, insulted, or demonized will show up to vote. If they do, they will pierce the Trump bubble. They were a majority two years ago, after all, before this nightmare of governance began. They could be a bigger majority next Tuesday.

Delivering a defeat to Trump will not, of course, be a defeat of Trumpism. White anxiety and discomfort in the face of mass immigration is not going to disappear. As I argued last week, it will likely intensify. The global pressures that suppress wages are not waning. The despair in so much of left-behind America cannot be blotted out indefinitely with fentanyl. The collapse of local communities is not going to turn around overnight, and automation is unstoppable. Fear of change is correlated to the pace of change, and the latter shows no sign of deceleration.

You can describe the new divide — and the forces propelling Trump — in many ways: open versus closed, fluid versus fixed, liberal versus conservative, anywhere versus somewhere. It’s healthy and natural that a new alignment would form given our new circumstances. But this new alignment is organized less around policy or the role of government, than on the feelings of security and confidence in the modern world. And in our current crisis, the closed, fixed, fearful view of the world is, understandably, in the ascendant. Putin, Brexit, Trump, Xi, Salvini, Alternative for Germany, Duterte, Bolsonaro, Orbán — we know the deal by now. Tom Edsall made a vital point yesterday in the New York Times, citing a new study. In America, a center-right country, those with “fixed views” are 42 percent of the electorate; those with “fluid views” are 32 percent; and those hybrids in the middle (which is where I find myself) are 26 percent. More to the point, the hybrids “are more like the fixed than they are the fluid.”

Trumpism, in other words, is the new normal. It is not going away. And there is no going back. The challenge for the center-right and center-left across the West is to accommodate this new normal in ways that do not empower authoritarianism, provoke constitutional unraveling, or incite civil unrest. And it seems to me that the lesson of the last two years is that the Republican Party is unable and unwilling to perform that function. It has turned itself into a cult behind a figure hostile to liberal democratic norms, responsible government, and any notion of moderation. It is less a political party than a mass movement sustained by shame-free, mendacious propaganda around a man whose articulated values place him more in the company of Putin and Duterte than Merkel and Macron.

The GOP cannot be talked out of their surrender to this strongman. With each rhetorical or policy atrocity, they have attached themselves more firmly to him. The dissenters are leaving; the new members of Congress will be even Trumpier than the old. They have abandoned any serious oversight role. Their singular achievement has been supplying judicial ranks who will not stand in the way of executive power. That was the real issue in the Kavanaugh nomination, as Newt Gingrich blurted out last week. A subpoena for the president from the special counsel would be fought, he promised, all the way to the Supreme Court, which is when we would see “whether or not the Kavanaugh fight was worth it.” This is a party bent on enabling authoritarianism, not restraining it.

That’s why I will vote Democrat next Tuesday. I have many issues with the Democrats, as regular readers well know. None of that matters compared with this emergency. I don’t care, in this instance, what their policies are. I am going to vote for them. I can’t stand most of their leaders and fear their radical fringe. I am going to vote for them anyway. Because it is the only responsible thing there is to do.

This president is quite clearly unfit for his office. If he is checked by the Congress, he will still be a danger — to the rule of law, the Constitution, and civil peace. But if he remains unchecked — and even vindicated by a midterm Republican success? After the themes he has involved and exploited — especially in this final week? After the massive lies he has told, in greater frequency these past few weeks than ever before? What he will learn from all that beggars belief.

It is time — way past time — for the opposition to be other than the press. It is time for it to be the Congress where it rightly belongs. Trump loves the unelected press as a foil; he has had a huge success in pivoting off it. It is harder to pivot off an elected opposition.

More to the point, the press doesn’t have subpoena power. The Fourth Estate can present fact after fact and it will not deter Trump telling lie after monstrous lie. But Congress has real power. The press can’t get his tax returns. Congress can. The press can’t truly discover the depth of the corruption in his administration. Congress can. The press can’t publicly cross-examine Cabinet members, order functionaries to answer questions, kill proposed legislation, and air everything where it should be aired — on Capitol Hill. By delivering the House to the opposition, we are doing one small thing to rebalance the scales.

And that balance is desperately needed. Trump’s danger to the Constitution is clear, not least in his looming assault on the special counsel. There are only two resorts in the face of it: elections and impeachment. The former is far preferable to the latter. In this instance, a divided government again will provide another advantage. One-party rule has strained this democracy. The Electoral College, gerrymandering, the structure of the Senate, and demographics have given us a government actively indifferent and even hostile to half the country. That single party has now taken firm control of the Supreme Court as well. It will very likely retain control of the Senate in January. Capturing the House is the only way the republic can strike back.

It may be a critical path to preventing civil unrest. As this past tragic week has again shown, this president has enabled bigots and cranks. The flourishing of white nationalism, the rebirth of hideous anti-Semitism, the dehumanization of the brown and the black, the deployment of cruelty against children, the celebration of violence — we have had politicians like this before, but we have never had a president like this. The power of words delivered with authority, especially from the White House, should not be underestimated. Trump has brought about a great, mass disinhibition. And when it has murderously erupted into violence — from Charlottesville to Pittsburgh — he has shown himself incapable of restraining it. That he unleashed the most racist ad since Willie Horton days after a terror attack on Democratic leaders, a hate murder of two African-Americans, and a mass shooting of Jews at prayer by a far-right bigot reveals who he is. He doesn’t care about the stability and cohesion of this country. He cares only about himself. If we survive another two years of this man we will all be lucky. If he remains utterly unchecked, we may very well not be.

The Italian leftist, Antonio Gramsci, famously wrote, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” We live in such a time, and we have in front of us one of those morbid symptoms: the current Republican Party. You know what to do.

Leave the Groups Out of It

At what point is it legitimate to make sweeping negative generalizations about whole classes of people? I was brought up to believe the answer to that was never. But I’m beginning to feel painfully naïve about that.

It’s endemic on the Trump right and in Trump’s own diseased psyche. Generalizations about immigrants, African-Americans, Latinos … well, you know the list by now. But it’s also percolating on the left. This week, CNN’s Don Lemon went there. He said we need to “realize the biggest terror threat in this country is white men, most of them radicalized to the right, and we have to start doing something about them. There is no travel ban on them. There is no ban — you know, they had the Muslim ban. There is no white-guy ban. So what do we do about that?”

Challenged on this, he doubled down. On the facts, he insisted, he is not wrong about domestic terrorism. Right-wing terror is at least as dangerous as Islamist terror, maybe more: “Since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, far-right violent extremists have killed 106 people in 62 attacks in the United States, while radical Islamist violent extremists have killed 119 people in 23 attacks.” He’s right about that — and, with Pittsburgh, there are now 11 more victims on the far-right side of the ledger. It is important to note, I think, that the first mass casualty event at a synagogue in America was not carried out by a Muslim.

But that’s not quite the point Lemon was making, was it? He was being deliberately provocative in his original remarks: “the biggest terror threat in this country is white men.” He suggested “we have to do something about them,” and referred to the “Muslim ban” as an analogy. It’s a dumb analogy, since it’s about immigrants from a select number of Muslim-majority countries, while “white men” is clearly about American citizens. But the Muslim analogy works in another way. We go out of our way — and rightly so, in my view — not to associate Islamist terrorists with American Muslims. And we do so because it’s grotesquely unfair to generalize from a tiny few to an entire population. If it’s unfair to do that for Muslims, why is it okay for “white men”?

This impulse to generalize is human and I don’t want to beat up on Don Lemon for an off-the-cuff riff. But it seems to me important to keep the denigration of entire classes of people in check. It’s morally wrong, and it’s politically counterproductive. The issue is not the far-right terrorists’ whiteness or their maleness, but their extremism and psychology.

Part of this is the corruption of the mind and soul that identity politics brings with it, especially on the right; part of it is the eternally dark part of the human psyche that fears an out-group. And, yes, generalizations about some groups — Jews, blacks, gays — are more troubling than generalizations about others — straight white men — because these minorities have been historically targeted, often brutally. And an exception should be made, I think, for humor, where all bets should be off. But all such generalizations rest on a principle that a free and multicultural society must reject if it is to succeed in hanging together. In a liberal society, we don’t judge the individual by the group or the group by the individual. It’s worth resisting the urge to do so when you feel it (as we all do from time to time). Especially when you believe your motives are good ones.

Boot’s Switch

The most striking thing about Max Boot, the former neocon who has become one of the most passionate Never Trumpers, is his naïveté. After decades of diligence in the ranks of the conservative movement, it took the emergence of Trump to make him see that almost everything he previously trusted and believed in could disappear overnight. I’m glad he has seen the light on this, and enjoyed his book, The Corrosion of Conservatism, as a memoir of that naïveté. It’s a devastating dissection of conservatism’s degeneracy in America. But I think people have missed one of the key sources of his earnestness and disillusionment.

He’s a first-generation immigrant, just like me. And we tend to idolize America. Unlike most people, we chose it. For us, America will always be an escape and a vision of a life made new. We look past its flaws, blur over its past, miss the racial backstory, rationalize foreign interventions in ways many native-born Americans would balk at. We immigrants are the ultimate American idealists, the way gays were the ultimate enthusiasts for the right to marry. You love what you can’t have.

If you are also a conservative, and came here in the twilight of the Cold War, you will also have been swept away by what appeared to be the triumph of your set of ideas, the total defeat of Soviet Communism, the collapse of collectivism, and the spread of freedom around the world. And the last two decades of the 20th century, when Boot and I came of age, were as intoxicating for a conservative immigrant to America as the first two decades of the 21st have been profoundly disillusioning. And because the faith was so deep for Max, a Soviet refugee no less, the loss of faith is so much more catastrophic.

My faith was never quite as deep, and so the disillusion was never quite so complete or sudden as Max’s. I was able to endorse Clinton and Blair, for example, and found in Obama the moderate Republican I’d always admired. My breaking point was the revelation that the GOP backed the brutal torture of prisoners, the total abnegation of a politics of freedom. If you didn’t recognize the barbarism that lay just beneath the Republican surface then, you were blinded by something pretty powerful. Some of my hostility to the right thereafter was tinged with excess, hyperbole, and a sense of betrayal. I became a nonperson on the right before it happened to the Never Trumpers. Maybe I was too harsh. Or emotional.

But there’s a danger to Damascene moments. It’s so very tempting to replace one tribe with another, one fixed ideology for its opposite, and to make that conversion the central part of your identity. There’s an American tradition of this, from Whittaker Chambers to David Brock. When I read Jennifer Rubin, I see the same trope. On the other end of the spectrum, I think of Mickey Kaus — whose slide to the right tribe seems to have no limiting principle — or the transformation of someone like Irving Kristol over the years.

But the full switcheroo is usually worth resisting. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled Boot and Rubin are fighting the good fight right now. But one form of blindness can lead to another. And the point of this troubling, opaque time — if you are a writer or thinker — is to see.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Can the Republic Strike Back?