Deep Thought

Deep Thought

There’s a particular kind of “think piece” in American journalism that blossoms in the run-up to every federal election. As a young man I thought they were the misguided efforts of well-intentioned people; as a less young man I now realize they’re just liberals trying to trick conservatives into supporting liberal ideas and candidates.

This Berlingske editorial is almost the perfect Platonic ideal of that genre, a chin-stroking piece that purports to be in favor of some long-lost golden age of conservatism when conservatism was, get this, just like liberalism.

Consider the headline: “Trumpism has a meaning, and it’ll survive Trump.” (“Der er en mening med trumpismen, og den vil overleve Trump.”)

What do you expect from such a headline?

I think it’s pretty reasonable to expect first a definition of Trumpism and then an explanation of how it will last.

Right? Am I being too literal? Are my expectations too high?

The answer to both questions is apparently yes.

I don’t know Berlingske’s opinion editor Pierre Collignon at all, so seeing his byline doesn’t lead me to expect things to go one way or another. I mean, it’s not like Poul Høi or David Trads or Steffen or Lillian Kretz, where I see the name and brace for the worst.

So I walked into this opinion piece with a very open mind, wide-eyed and credulous… like a blindfolded drunk staggering into a busy intersection.

Det er let at overse det, når hovedpersonen tér sig så groft, narcissistisk og til tider grænsende til vanvittigt.

“It’s easy to overlook it when the protagonist conducts himself in such a rough, narcissistic way, sometimes bordering on insanity.”

That’s the first sentence.

I found it very confusing until Herself (my lovely bride) suggested I read it as an extension of the headline. Then it makes sense.

In any case, we all know the rules: you can’t say anything in defense of Trump or his ideas without first acknowledging that he’s a little rough around the edges. Collignon’s just taking care of business, I get it.

Hvis Donald Trump taber det amerikanske præsidentvalg 3. november 2020, er det helt og holdent hans egen skyld. Eller sagt mere præcist: Det vil være hans personligheds skyld.

OK, so if we pull the headline in as if it were the actual first sentence of the piece, the opening paragraph goes something like this: “Trumpism is a thing, and it’ll outlast Trump himself. That’s easy to overlook, because Trump is such a basket case. If he loses this election, it’s totally on him and that stupid personality of his.”

The implication, as I read it, is that Trumpism actually has some lasting merit, and we shouldn’t let the man get in the way of his ideas. I’ll admit, I find that intriguing.

We’re next told that a lot of Americans have had enough of Trump’s circus, but that we shouldn’t just expect the ideas and sentiments that brought him to power to disappear overnight.

“Det, vi kan kalde trumpismen,” Collignon says, “kommer til at præge den amerikanske højrefløj langt ind i fremtiden.”

“That which we can call Trumpism is going to shape the American right for a long time.”

I’m inclined to agree. So based on the title of his column, I’m assuming this is the part where Collignon offers his definition of Trumpism.

I wrote last week about a few Danish articles that defined Trumpism, through liberal American sources, as a hot mess of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and hatred of all things liberal. Is that what Collignon means, or does he have some definition of his own?

We’ll never know, because he doesn’t say.

He does however tip his hand a little when he notes that back in 2016, “Trump understood better than anyone else to speak to white working-class voters who had long felt marginalized, and he criticized dogmas about free trade, the market economy, and the role of the United States in the world that had dominated Republican thinking for decades.”

I’m not sure whether that’s true in the sense of Truth, or true in the sense that it’s what we’ve all collectively agreed to call the truth. Either way, I’ve got to break it into a couple of pieces to deal with it properly, so I’ll address the “white voters” thing first, then get back to Trump’s critiques of Republican dogma.

Looking at the inroads he made with minority voters in 2016, and has continued making since, I find the adjective “white” unnecessary. Even a little dirty. Trump connected to marginalized working-class voters of every color. I could overlook a little thing like that, since the majority of the American working-class is indeed white, but Trump never directed any of his rhetoric specifically to whites. Ever. Not directly or indirectly. On the contrary, he frequently reached out explicitly to black, Latino, and other minority voters.

That adjective aside, Collignon is right: what Trump understood, better than just about anybody else out there, was how to speak to voters. This isn’t really debatable. Have you seen one of his rallies? If not, then even if you hate the man—especially if you hate the man—you should watch one.

I just plucked these at random, because which rally you watch hardly matters:

It’s said that a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one important thing. As a student of rhetoric, I think that’s a helpful metaphor for Trump’s communication skills. Polished public speakers like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are foxes who know many things about public speaking, but Trump is a hedgehog who knows one important thing. He rambles, he misspeaks, he contradicts himself, he violates almost every Aristotelian principle of rhetoric… but he knows his audience and gives them what they want because he genuinely loves them, and they genuinely love him back, and why should anything else matter?

Or watch a CBS journalist, who’s pretty much dripping with contempt for the president, trying desperately to understand Trump’s appeal to his supporters:

In any case, I agree with Collignon about Trump’s ability to connect with working-class voters, I just disagree completely with his having narrowed that down to white working-class voters.

As for the second part of Collignon’s observation, I would emphasize that Trump’s criticism were pointed at Republican dogmas, many of which were not necessarily conservative dogmas. In fact, the remarkable thing Trump did during the 2016 primaries was to pit conservatism against establishment Republicanism.

Collignon observes, correctly I think, that Trump “drew a picture of corrupt elites” on both sides of the political aisle who thought more about their rich corporate and special interest donors than they did about their own constituents. Trump’s message of economic populism, Collignon says, sometimes sounded a lot like that of “the Democrats’ establishment challenger, the declared socialist Bernie Sanders.”

(It’s fun that we can call Sanders a declared socialist now. Back in the day we had to call him a “Democratic Socialist,” because there was still a chance he might end up as the nominee. Now that he’s back in the dustbin of history, I guess we’re being honest again.)

Collignon’s point seems to be: Trump thundered against the banks, and against corporate America’s outsourcing of jobs to China and India, and hey, that’s practically socialism! As if you have to be a socialist to be angry when banks and politicians break the global economy with stupid decisions, or when they get bailed out with taxpayer money even though it’s the taxpayers whom the banks and politicians screwed over with their terrible policies. It’s like someone breaks into your house, smashes all your stuff, gets arrested, and then makes you pay his legal fees. And you say, “that’s not fair!” And you’re told “Hey, wow! You’re talking like a socialist now!

The startling thing isn’t that Trump agreed with Sanders on this issue: it’s that so many voters didn’t. You know why they didn’t? Because although the entire political and financial class was complicit, it was Democrats that had the dirtiest hands with respect to the causes of the 2008 financial crisis.

In terms of the outsourcing of jobs to China and India, things are more complicated. There are sound economic reasons for jobs migrating out of one country and into another. There are also unsound reasons. Trump wasn’t good about separating the two—but neither are the men and women opposed to his foreign trade policies. That doesn’t excuse his oversimplifications, but it’s important context.

Trumps provokerende stil havde samtidig rødder i nyere populistiske strømninger på den amerikanske højrefløj. Før Trump var der Sarah Palin, Pat Buchanan, Tea Party-bevægelsen, Fox News og et nyt, digitalt hav af højreorienterede medier, som udfordrede den midtersøgende amerikanske konservatisme ved at føre en aggressiv kulturkrig mod venstrefløjen.

“At the same time, Trump’s provocative style had its roots in recent populist currents on the American right.”

This here, that’s the tell. Pierre Collignon knows and understands about as much about American conservatism as I know and understand about yak herding.

The idea that there’s a strong centrist current in American conservatism is itself a leftist idea. The idea that Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, Pat Buchanan, Fox News, and conservatives on digital media can be lumped together as part of a “recent populist trend” is also a weird and therefore probably leftist idea.

An aggressive stance toward the cultural left has been embedded into American conservatism for quite a while.

Here, for example, is a little speech from another guy who challenged the cultural left with full-throated vigor… back on the very same day when the Beatles were in the studio mixing Eight Days a Week. It’s kind of a classic, so if you’ve never seen or heard it before, you might want to give a whirl (I’m speaking of the speech, not the Beatles tune, although that’s also a classic):

That was about a week before the presidential election of 1964. The candidate being supported by Mr. Reagan was the arch-conservative Barry Goldwater, who ended up losing to LBJ in one of the biggest election day massacres in American history. This speech is usually considered the thing that launched Reagan into the national spotlight as a politician with a future; Goldwater’s electoral wipeout was considered by many thoughtful people on the left and right to be a sign that conservativism in America was no longer politically viable. (Nixon’s victories in ’68 and ’72 said otherwise.)

Almost a quarter century later, the Washington Post’s obituary of the man includes this interesting bit (emphasis mine):

During his 1964 presidential campaign, Mr. Goldwater was attacked by Democrats and opponents within his own party as a demagogue and a leader of right-wing extremists and racists who was likely to lead the United States into nuclear war, eliminate civil rights progress and destroy such social welfare programs as Social Security.

But that perception mellowed with time.

I’m sure I could dig up an obituary about Ronald Reagan saying more or less the same thing. Hell, if you swap “1964” to “1980 and 1984,” and “Goldwater” to “Reagan,” it’s entirely accurate.

Because that’s what Democrats and “opponents within their own party” do to actual conservatives, and have been doing as long as I have been drawing breath on this earth.

The problem with the idea of centrist or center-right American conservatism is that American conservatives are no more center-right than American liberals are center-left. The American center is an ever widening, ever flatter statistical valley stretching between the twin peaks of American conservatives and American liberals.

Animated graphic from VisualCapitalist.com. (Does not animate in print!)

Back to Collignon:

I 2016 var øjeblikket perfekt for realitystjernen Donald Trump, der var endnu mere uhæmmet end sine populistiske forgængere på højrefløjen. Trump gik fra den ene skandaleudtalelse til den anden, mens han råbte, at hans demokratiske udfordrer, Hillary Clinton, skulle i fængsel.

Scandalousness is in the eye of the beholder. A better word for what separated Trump’s campaign trail language from that of his rivals would be shocking.

It was shocking the way anything truly new is shocking. It wasn’t “scandalous” that Trump spoke so openly, and in such coarse language, about the various scandals surrounding Hillary Clinton—those scandals were (and remain), as people like Collignon often forget, very real. But it was shocking because the unwritten rules of campaigning as a conservative had, for some reason, always included a clause that one must only speak politely and respectfully of one’s Democratic opponents. That’s a rule that has never constricted Democrats in terms of how they speak about Republicans, or how “center-right” Republicans speak about actual conservatives. (See the Post obituary above as exhibit A.) For Donald Trump to call Hillary Clinton a criminal who ought to be locked up wasn’t the kind of thing one expected a Republican to say of a Democrat, even though it was exactly the kind of thing Democrats have always said about Republicans. So that’s what was shocking: Donald Trump’s willingness to say out loud what other Republicans wouldn’t, even though most if not all of them agreed that, in fact, Hillary Clinton had violated enough federal laws to warrant more than a pro-forma investigation and a slap on the wrist.

Collignon says:

Glemt og borte var John McCains berømmede fairness, som da han midt under valgkampen i 2008 forsvarede Barack Obama over for en republikansk vælger, som mente, at USAs første sorte præsidentkandidat skulle være araber. Glemt og borte var Ronald Reagans charme og varme.

Watch the video Collignon embedded of McCain’s “famous fairness.” The woman actually says “I don’t trust Obama,” to which McCain nods in agreement, and then she stammers a little before saying, “He’s an Arab.” At which point McCain shakes his head in disagreement, takes the microphone away from the crazy lady, and says, “No ma’am, no ma’am, he’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with.”

That’s not fairness, that’s just putting distance between himself and crazy. Many lunatic things were said about Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but his being “an Arab” isn’t one that crossed my radar. This woman was clearly off her meds, and McCain did the only sensible thing that a politician of any political stripe could do: he took back the mic and made it clear he wasn’t as crazy as this woman.

Besides, John McCain’s “famous fairness” was so famously fair that the left compared him to Hitler. They said he was too old to run and that his famous temper made him unsuitable for office. Ronald Reagan’s famous charm and warmth were so famously charming and warm that the left compared him to Hitler.

But wait, get this:

Trump 2016 talte til en primitiv udgave af amerikansk machokultur, som sejrede efter årtiers vulgarisering af underholdningsverdenen og politik. Men det var ikke bare et show. Trumps provokationer var et angreb på en politisk korrekthed, som længe havde ligget som en dyne over debatten og mediedækningen.

I agree that the “vulgarization” of entertainment and politics had been apace for decades, and I agree that political correctness is poison, but I think it’s worth noting that the driving force behind that vulgarization wasn’t the right: it was driven by Hollywood and the media. In other words, the left.

The shocking thing about Trump, the thing Collignon and American leftists find “scandalous” about Trump, is that he paid them back in their own coin.

I hated Trump in 2016, but I thought his willingness to fight the left on their own terms was incredibly refreshing. And I think that one of the reasons he was able to do that so effectively is that he had spent most of his life in the bubble of Hollywood and Manhattan.

For hvert ubehagelige udfald mod mexicanere, politiske modstandere eller »fake news«-medier kunne Trump mærke sit publikum gyse med fryd. Det var alt sammen for meget, men alligevel så uimodståeligt.

Unpleasant outbursts against Mexicans? Source, please.

Unpleasant outbursts against political opponents? Seriously? You mean like comparing them to Nazis? Like calling their supporters deplorable?

Unpleasant outbursts against “fake news” media? You mean the media that announced in plain and simple language that they could no longer cover politics objectively because Trump was so horrible they were going to have to transform their news organizations into partisan political operations?

As for “it was all too much, but anyway so irresistable,” what does that even mean? All too much what, and to whom?

Trumps tilgang til den offentlige debat har gjort alvorlig skade. Han bliver ved med at sprede konspirationsteorier, mistænkeliggørelse og had i en grad, som bringer USA på randen af en eksistentiel splittelse, men hans brud på tabuerne var ikke kun skørhed. Trump fik faktisk vækket det republikanske parti til et mere realistisk syn på illegal indvandring og grænsekontrol, og det var der brug for.

There was earlier a tiny little nod of approval by Collignon toward Trump’s rejection of political correctness, and here we have a tiny little nod to his having brought illegal immigration and border control to the attention of the Republican party. But it’s introduced with a big splash of negativity: Trump continues to spread conspiracy theories (if you can’t cite them, at least name them, please) as well as “suspicion and hatred to a degree that brings the United States to the brink of an existential division.”

Trump is spreading suspicion and hatred?

Did Trump create the “Resist!” movement? Does Trump compare his own opponents to genocidal dictators? Did Trump unleash the law enforcement and intelligence services of the federal government on his political opponents?

I can name the conspiracy theories that the Democrats, the FBI, the CIA, the DOJ, and the establishment media spread about Trump: their lies about Russian collusion have been documented and proof of their awfulness continues to drip out thanks to the perseverance of a few hearty souls in the Senate and the DOJ. There’s ample proof of it: you can start here.

At kontrollere, hvem der kommer ind i landet, er der ikke noget forkert i. Problemet var, at Trump ogsĂĄ forfaldt til rent ud racistiske ytringer.

If you’re going to accuse someone of making racist remarks, you need to cite them. I agree that many of his remarks were called racist, but I have not yet seen an example where the racism was anywhere but in the eye of the beholder. As I noted (with statistical backup) in a previous post, Trump’s support from blacks and Latinos has been growing while his support from whites has been dropping. As Glenn Reynolds would say: Worst. Racist. Ever.

Sådan vil flere af Trumps temaer blive ved med at spille en rolle. Værdikampen ruller videre. Her er der brug for at gøre modstand til venstrefløjens mest »woke« grupper, der driver identitetspolitikken ud i en radikal intolerance, men den modstand skal helst formuleres mere fornuftigt, end Trump har gjort det.

I agree with Collignon that it’s necessary to counter the left’s most “woke” groups, who are driving identity politics into radical intolerance. And I agree that such resistance should be formulated more sensibly. It should. Because Trump is, at the end of the day, a pretty lousy spokesperson, even for ideas I agree with. So throw us a bone, Pierre. What’s your idea for “sensible” resistance to the radical intolerance of identity politics?

The kind of politics being driven by nice people like this:

Well, they’re just sad and broken people, ordinary Americans with extraordinary emotional problems. Probably the sensible and compassionate approach is just to ignore them.

But what about people like the elected representatives, media professionals, celebrities, and other public figures whose rhetoric is only a notch or two more sane than the sad cases in the preceding video?

How do you talk sensibly to a Maxine Waters, an Adam Schiff, a Jerry Nadler, a Cory “Spartacus” Booker? To a Rachel Maddow or a Don Lemon or a Chris Cuomo? To Cher, or Madonna, or Bette Midler, or Susan Sarandon, or Jane Fonda?

They’re every bit as crazy and broken and sad as the anonymous citizens in the freakout video, but much more dangerous because their political, media, and celebrity platforms give them such powerful voices.

Trumps kritik af amerikansk kapitalisme ser også ud til at blive ført videre. Unge konservative intellektuelle som Oren Cass og Julius Krein vil redde trumpismens kritik af uhæmmet liberalisme fra mindet om Trumps egen økonomiske politik, som på lange stræk har skuffet dem. Fremtrædende republikanske kongresmedlemmer som Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley og Tim Scott taler også om, at USA har brug for en kapitalisme, som sikrer middelklassen bedre vilkår. De drømmer om en »genindustrialisering« af USA med en aktiv, statsdirigeret industripoltik, køb-amerikansk klausuler og en udtalt nationalistisk handelspolitik.

Without his meaning to, I think Collignon puts his finger on something important here. Let me cut that paragraph down to its most important words:

“Young conservative intellectuals… want to… Prominent Republican lawmakers… talk… They dream…”

Just so.

My view of economics is based on my understanding of Bastiat, Friedman, and Sowell, among others. I therefore support any critique of unbridled liberalism (in the American sense), although I’m not familiar with Cass or Krein. I think the best type of capitalism for improving the conditions of the middle class is, always and everywhere, the kind of capitalism that’s allowed to operate with the absolute minimum of interference from politicians. And I think the current pandemic has taught us there’s a vital strategic need for total independence and self-sufficiency in many areas of manufacturing (especially in the area of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment).

Trump’s economic policies are a shade too protectionist for my liking, and he doesn’t seem to draw a distinction between manufacturing that we need to keep in America for strategic reasons (antibiotics, for example) and manufacturing that he’d like to keep in America for political reasons.

That much said, America’s economic intellectuals and Republican lawmakers have talked a good game for my entire adult life without ever delivering even a fraction of what Trump has in the past four years. Because what they do in practice is what they do in Collignon’s column: they want, they talk, they dream. They never do.

It’s like the moving of the American embassy to Jerusalem: that’s something Obama supported, Bush supported, Clinton supported… and Trump did.

I’d rather have a guy who gets a lot of the policies I want put into action, even if they sometimes fall short of what I’d really like, than have a guy who either talks a good game but can’t get elected or gets elected and then fails to get anything done.

Der er grund til at glæde sig, hvis amerikanske konservative bliver bedre til at tænke på, hvad der sikrer fællesskab og økonomisk retfærdighed i USA, men nogle af deres forslag vil desværre virke stik mod hensigten. Vi bliver faktisk ikke rigere af at lægge hindringer i vejen for verdenshandelen.

“Ensuring community and economic justice” sounds like liberal mush to me: what, pray tell, is “community justice?” What is “economic justice?” Are we talking about living conditions, wages, redistribution, what? I agree that removing obstacles from free world trade is vital, but I also acknowledge that we need to do something to stop countries from gaming the system, and that those “cures” will often come in the form of additional barriers.

Trumps opgør med amerikansk udenrigspolitik efterlader sig også spor. Trump talte til en udbredt træthed, da han i 2016 gik til valg på at afslutte USAs »uendelige krige«. Vi fik så hans »America First«-politik, der såede tvivl om gamle alliancer og trak USA væk fra at tage ansvar i verden. Nu er der brug for en en ny generation af republikanere, som både kan være realistiske og idealistiske. Vi er nogle stykker, som har savnet USA som leder for den frie verden.

We live in an interesting moment, in which on the one hand there is civil unrest throughout the western world because the western world has a history of colonialism and imperialism, and yet we have chin-strokers like Pierre Collignon longing for the good old days of… American imperialism.

We need to decide as a civilization whether we believe the values of western civilization are worth defending and even exporting, or whether all this popular chatter about cultural relativism is for real and we need to “respect” the values of other cultures whose values are, to put it mildly, at odds with our own: where the individual isn’t sovereign, where there is no equality under the law, where the press is not free, where religious freedom doesn’t exist, where political opposition leads more often to a prison cell than a seat at the table.

We need to decide whether Europe is responsible for its own defense, or whether America should continue to serve as its military umbrella.

Non-Americans like Pierre Collignon who “miss” American leadership of the free world owe it to the rest of us to define the kind of leadership they want. The kind that leads, directly or “from behind,” to create disasters all over the Middle East and Africa that flood Europe with refugees and migrants? Or what?

Trump is the first American president not to initiate hostilities and drop combat troops on foreign soil since the 1970s. Is that not the kind of leadership you’re interested in?

Obama let Russia snatch up the Crimea and roll into eastern Ukraine unopposed and left power vacuums in Libya and Syria. Was that more to your liking? Do you miss the massive “shock and awe” of the Bush administration? The dropping of bombs in Europe overseen by Clinton?

It’s not actually the American president’s job to lead the free world: it’s his or her job to lead America, and that may sometimes produce results unpleasing to those outside America, just as decisions made in Christiansborg may not always be to the liking of Swedes, Germans, or Americans.

Endelig får amerikanske konservative en stor opgave, hvis Trump taber: De skal finde tilbage til en respekt for traditioner og ordentlighed, som også inkluderer respekt for politiske modstandere og demokratiske institutioner. Det er her – med undermineringen af det demokratiske sammenhold – at trumpismen har gjort mest skade.

As the conservative blogger Ace would probably say: LOLGF.

American conservatives are the ones that need to find their way back to respectful discourse? Conservatives are the ones being disrespectful of political opponents and democratic institutions?

CNN image.

See that image? That’s a shot of the final vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee on advancing Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. The Republican members of the committee are seated on the left. On the right are the cardboard images the Democratic members of the committee left in their seats instead of voting.

What an inspiring and respectful show of respect for our democratic institutions!

Heroic!

It takes two to tango. For decades American conservatives have been mocked, derided, insulted, and abused by the left. Trump isn’t the cause of a break in civility, he’s the result of conservative exhaustion with the mockery, derision, insults, and abuse.

So I’ll thank the chin-stroking Pierre Collignon, and other chin-strokers like him, to kindly redirect their advice where it’s needed: at the American and international left, whose bad behavior has never been called out by anyone in the establishment media.

And when Maxine Waters reminds her fans that members of the Trump administration have every right to appear in public without harassment, and when a conservative candidate for president can make it through a full election cycle without being compared to Hitler or Pol Pot, and when a Republican president-elect can make it from election day to his or her inauguration without being threatened with impeachment, or being set up for legal entrapment by the outgoing administration, and when defeated Democratic presidential candidates can say out loud that political civility is possible even if Democrats don’t control every branch of government—I could go on for a long, long time—when all of that happens, then conservatives will certainly need to reciprocate in kind.

Until then, I think American conservatives will be grateful for candidates who can give as good as they get.

And think-pieces like this one, whose basic premise is that Trump has some ideas that aren’t totally awful, but would be much better if they were, you know, liberal ideas, can continue to be safely ignored.