July 21, 2020


Why Did Republicans Abandon American Idealism?: Anne Applebaum on Political and Cultural Despair (Anne Applebaum, July 21, 2020, Lit Hub)

This strand of deep right-wing pessimism about America is not entirely new. A version of these same views has been offered to Americans repeatedly, over a period of three decades, by many other speakers and writers, but most famously by Patrick Buchanan. Buchanan is not an evangelical Protestant, but rather a Catholic who shares the same apocalyptic worldview. In 1999, Buchanan announced that he was resigning from the Republican Party and running for the presidency at the head of the Reform Party. In his announcement speech, he lamented the loss of the "popular culture that undergirded the values of faith, family, and country, the idea that we Americans are a people who sacrifice and suffer together, and go forward together, the mutual respect, the sense of limits, the good manners; all are gone." In more recent versions of this lament, he has been more specific about his cultural despair, as he was in the spring of 2016:

In the popular culture of the '40s and '50s, white men were role models. They were the detectives and cops who ran down gangsters and the heroes who won World War II on the battlefields of Europe and in the islands of the Pacific. The world has been turned upside-down for white children. In our schools the history books have been rewritten and old heroes blotted out, as their statues are taken down and their flags are put away.

Buchanan's pessimism derives partially from his sense of white decline but also, like some of those diametrically opposed to him on the left, from his dislike of American foreign policy. Over the years he has evolved away from ordinary isolationism and toward what seems to be a belief that America's role in the world is pernicious, if not evil. In 2002, he told a television audience, using language that could have equally come from Noam Chomsky or a similar left-wing critic of America, that "9/11 was a direct consequence of the United States meddling in an area of the world where we do not belong and where we are not wanted."

Stranger still, a man who resisted false Soviet narratives for many decades fell hard for a false Russian narrative, created by Putin's political technologists, that Russia is a godly, Christian nation seeking to protect its ethnic identity. Never mind that only a tiny percentage of Russians actually go to church, or that fewer than 5 percent say they have ever read the Bible; never mind that Russia is very much a multiethnic, multilingual state, with a far larger Muslim population than most European countries; never mind that Chechnya, a Russian province, is actually governed by sharia law, or that its government forces women to wear veils and tortures gay men; never mind that many forms of evangelical Christianity are actually banned.

The propaganda--the photographs of Putin paying homage to an icon of Our Lady of Kazan, for example, or the incorporation of religious services into his inaugurations--worked on Buchanan, who became convinced that Russia was an ethnic nationalist state of a sort superior to America, which he describes with disgust as a "multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial, multilingual 'universal nation' whose avatar is Barack Obama."

Like those who live on the extreme edges of the American far left, some of those who live on the extreme edges of the far right have long been attracted to violence. There is no need to rehearse here the history of the Ku Klux Klan, to tell the stories of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh and Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, or to describe the myriad individuals and militia movements who have plotted mass murder, and continue to plot mass murder, in the name of rescuing a fallen nation. In 2017, an Illinois militia set off a bomb at a Minnesota mosque. In 2018, a man who believed Jews were plotting to destroy white America murdered eleven people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

In January 2019, a group of men calling themselves "the Crusaders" plotted to put a bomb in an apartment complex in Garden City, Kansas, because they hoped to murder a large number of Somali refugees. These groups and movements were also inspired by a conviction that democracy is worthless, that elections cannot bring real change, and that only the most extreme and desperate actions can stop the decline of a certain vision of America.

By 2016, some of the arguments of the old Marxist left--their hatred of ordinary, bourgeois politics and their longing for revolutionary change--met and mingled with the Christian right's despair about the future of American democracy. Together, they produced the restorative nostalgic campaign rhetoric of Donald Trump. Two years earlier, Trump had railed against American failure, and called for a solution Trotsky would have appreciated: "You know what solves [this]? When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster. Then you'll have . . . riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great."

Four years before that, his adviser Steve Bannon, who has openly compared himself to Lenin, spoke menacingly of the need for war: "We're gonna have to have some dark days before we get to the blue sky of morning again in America. We are going to have to take some massive pain. Anybody who thinks we don't have to take pain is, I believe, fooling you." In a 2010 speech, he even made a direct reference to the Weathermen, referencing Prairie Fire and quoting from the Bob Dylan song that gave them their name:

It doesn't take a weatherman to see which way the wind blows, and the winds blow off the high plains of this country, through the prairie and lighting a fire that will burn all the way to Washington in November.

Trump's inaugural address, written by a team of his advisers--Bannon among them--also contained both left and right strands of anti-Americanism. It included left-wing disgust for the "Establishment," which had "protected itself, but not the citizens of our country": "Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation's capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land." It also reflected the evangelical despair about the dire moral state of the nation, "the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential."

The inaugural speech did not directly express a longing for a cleansing episode of violence. But the speech on "Western civilization" that Trump delivered in Warsaw a year later, in July 2017--the one Bardaji and his friends helped write--most certainly did. Trump, who seemed surprised by some of what he was reading from the teleprompter ("Think of that!" he marveled at a mention of the Polish origins of Copernicus), was clearly not the author.

But the real authors, including Bannon and Stephen Miller, used some of the same language as they had in the inaugural: "The people, not the powerful . . . have always formed the foundation of freedom and the cornerstone of our defense," they wrote, as if Trump himself were not a wealthy, powerful elite businessman who had dodged the draft and let others fight in his place. In a passage describing the Warsaw Uprising--a horrific and destructive battle in which, despite showing great courage, the Polish resistance was crushed by the Nazis--they had Trump declare that "those heroes remind us that the West was saved with the blood of patriots; that each generation must rise up and play their part in its defense." The ominous overtone was hard to miss: "each generation" means that patriots in our generation will have to spill their blood in the coming battle to rescue America from its own decadence and corruption too.

Trump himself contributes new elements to this old story. To the millenarianism of the far right and the revolutionary nihilism of the far left he adds the deep cynicism of someone who has spent years running unsavory business schemes around the world. Trump has no knowledge of the American story and so cannot have any faith in it. He has no understanding of or sympathy for the language of the founders, so he cannot be inspired by it. Since he doesn't believe American democracy is good, he has no interest in an America that aspires to be a model among nations.

In a 2017 interview with Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, he expressed his admiration for Vladimir Putin, the Russian dictator, using a classic form of "whataboutism." "But he's a killer," said O'Reilly. "There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?" Trump replied. Two years earlier, he expressed a similar thought in another television interview, this time with Joe Scarborough. "He's running his country and at least he's a leader," he said of Putin, "unlike what we have in this country... I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe, so you know."

This way of speaking--"Putin is a killer, but so are we all"--mirrors Putin's own propaganda, which often states, in so many words, "Okay, Russia is corrupt, but so is everyone else." It is an argument for moral equivalence, an argument that undermines faith, hope, and the belief that we can live up to the language of our Constitution. It is also an argument that is useful to the president, because it gives him the license to be a "killer," or to be corrupt, or to break the rules "just like everyone else." On a trip to Dallas I heard a version of this from one of the president's wealthy supporters. Yes, she told me, he is corrupt--but so, she believed, were all of the presidents who went before him. "We just didn't know about it before." That idea gave her--an upstanding citizen, a law-abiding patriot--the license to support a corrupt president. If everybody is corrupt and always has been, then whatever it takes to win is okay.

This, of course, is the argument that anti-American extremists, the groups on the far-right and far-left fringes of society, have always made. American ideals are false, American institutions are fraudulent, American behavior abroad is evil, and the language of the American project--equality, opportunity, justice--is nothing but empty slogans. 

The Left objects that minorities do not share in America's bounty equally with whites; the Right objects that they get to share at all.

Posted by at July 21, 2020 12:00 AM