In an interview with the Financial Times before the G-20 summit, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin elucidated his oft-stated belief that Western-style liberalism has failed, leaving Putin-style authoritarianism as the only alternative. “The liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done. The migrants can kill, plunder, and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants must be protected,” Putin said. “The liberal idea has become obsolete.”
During a press conference at the G-20, a reporter asked President Trump about Putin’s comments that western-style liberalism is obsolete. Trump had absolutely no idea what the entire debate referred to:
Well, he may feel that way. He says what’s going on. I guess you look at what’s happening in Los Angeles, where it’s so sad to look, and what’s happening in San Francisco, and a couple other cities which are run by an extraordinary group of liberal people, I don’t know what they’re thinking but he does see things that are happening in the United States that would probably preclude him from saying how wonderful it is. At the same time, he congratulated me as every other leader of every other country did for what we’ve done economically … [briefly touts economy]
I don’t know what they’re thinking because when you look at Los Angeles, when you look at San Francisco, when you look at some of the other cities, and not a lot, not a lot, but you don’t want it to spread, and at a certain point, maybe, the federal government has to get involved. We can’t continue to let that happen to our cities.
Putin was expressing a broadly fashionable argument that he has promoted for years, and that has recently taken hold among reactionaries in several Western countries, including the United States. Their critique is not of liberalism in the sense of the American center-left tradition identified with the Democratic party, but the longer historical tradition of liberalism that emerged from the theories of John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and other traditional philosophers whose beliefs created the foundation for democratic government. Most graduates of an elite college who took any humanities courses would have some rough familiarity with their work, which is a cornerstone of what’s called a “liberal education.” The “West,” of course, refers to Europe and the United States, where liberal ideas first took hold.
Trump did not recognize this debate at all. Instead, he concluded that “the west” means California, and “liberalism” means the Democratic Party.
Believing Putin had criticized life in California rather than America’s philosophy of government, Trump explained that, yes, Putin is correct that things are terrible in cities in California (“he does see things that are happening in the United States that would probably preclude him from saying how wonderful it is.”) But, Trump added, this is the fault of the Democrats, not him. He then assured reporters he’s not offended, because Putin has congratulated him on the overall state of the American economy.
Trump’s riff encapsulates the comic and sinister aspects of his political rise. As demographic change has made the U.S. population more progressive, Republicans have embraced more authoritarian methods to preserve their minority rule. Just this week, Florida Republicans imposed a poll tax to prevent enfranchised former prisoners from exercising their right to vote.
Trump himself is an instinctive authoritarian. He demands subservience, identifies himself completely with the state, denies the right of journalists to criticize him, believes he has the right to start or stop any prosecution at his discretion, refuses to acknowledge Congress’s right to conduct any oversight of his administration, and praises foreign dictators for their strength. Bonding with Putin, Trump joked at their shared disdain for independent media. “Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it?” Trump said. “You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do.”
A handful of conservative intellectuals have found this frontal attack on liberal democracy so repulsive they have defected from the Republican party. A larger number have simply ignored it. Recently, a sect of conservatives have sought to form an intellectual justification for the party’s growing illiberalism. This core of Trumpy intellectuals is waging a frontal assault on the value of liberalism, joining an effort made by other loyalists, like Steve Bannon, to create a trans-national front of white Christian illiberal populism.
But Trump, rather than being grateful for their efforts to create a rationale for his authoritarianism, is completely ignorant of them. His contempt for democratic norms is sub-ideological, a pure product of his narcissistic fear of disobedience and innate belief in natural hierarchy. He hates democracy deep in his soul, but does not understand why.
Putin, who does not have to worry about political opposition, has nonetheless invested time and resources into promoting philosophical alternatives to liberalism. Trump, who does have to worry about opposition, has not bothered to familiarize himself even with the basic terms of the debate. This is one reason Trump poses less danger to his country than Putin to his own. All he is able to take away from this great debate about the future of Western liberalism, a tradition developed over centuries and purchased with blood, is that Putin finds life in California less appealing than life in Russia.