Democracy dies while the president looks the other way.
Past U.S. presidents have used their bully pulpit to campaign for human-rights and democracy. By encouraging the unprecedented wave of democratization that has swept the world since 1945, their words and actions had consequences. That’s not something that Donald Trump does. Far from it; he positively praises dictators. His words have consequences, too, and they are not good.
After Trump praised Rodrigo Duterte for his war on drugs, which involves sending out death squads to kill thousands of people, the Philippine president was emboldened to impose martial law on Mindanao. After Trump visited Saudi Arabia and praised its rulers, they were emboldened to launch a counterproductive boycott of Qatar that is splintering the anti-Iran coalition in the Middle East. And after Trump visited Warsaw on July 6 and embraced the ruling Law and Justice Party, it was emboldened to push through parliament a law that would essentially destroy the independence of the Polish judiciary, the last major institution standing in the way of its authority.
Now, it’s perfectly plausible to argue that, in each case, local officials reacted to their own imperatives and that the words of Trump were not decisive. The president of the United States does exercise an outsized influence on allies, though; especially allies like Saudi Arabia and Poland, which rely on American protection for their very existence. Strong words of censure from Trump might not have dissuaded any of these rulers from the path they chose, but his words of support undoubtedly encouraged him to take actions that are antithetical to American values.
That’s particularly the case in Poland, which has long been held up as a shining star of the post-Communist world. Now its star is faded, its stature diminished because the populist Law and Justice Party appears intent on imposing quasi-authoritarian control over its unruly democracy. Party members have just pushed through parliament, without the benefit of hearings, a law that would remove all of the country’s supreme court judges and replace them with alternatives handpicked by the justice minister, who is a party member.
Under pressure from crowds of protesters and the European Union, President Andrzej Duda unexpectedly vetoed the supreme court bill, while signing other legislation that increases political control over the lower courts. The question now is whether Law and Justice will try again to politicize the judiciary as part of its larger assault on Polish democracy.
Already, Law and Justice has taken over the state-owned news media and turned it from the BBC model to the RT model, labeling political opponents as traitors to the Polish people. As the Wall Street Journal noted, the party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, “has accused the opposition of conspiring to kill his identical twin brother, who died in a 2010 plane crash in Russia. ‘You murdered him, you scumbags,’ he said to the opposition during the parliamentary debate on the new law.”
There is not a shred of evidence to support this incendiary accusation; the plane crash was almost certainly an accident. Poland’s own investigation “blamed the disaster on a combination of factors, including bad weather and errors made by a pilot who was not adequately trained on the plane he was flying, a Tupolev-154. That probe also said Russian air traffic controllers gave incorrect and confusing landing instructions to pilots — but it stopped short of alleging intentional wrongdoing.”
In his disdain for political opposition and the media and his embrace of conspiracy theories, Kaczynski is reminiscent of Trump, except that he operates in a much more fragile political system without the protections enshrined in a centuries-old constitution.
During his ballyhooed speech in Warsaw, Trump defended “Western civilization,” but he had not one word of rebuke for his hosts in the Law and Justice Party over their efforts to undermine Polish democracy. The State Department, to be sure, is speaking up against the Law and Justice power grab. “The Polish government has continued to pursue legislation that appears to undermine judicial independence and weaken the rule of law in Poland,” it said in a statement. “We urge all sides to ensure that any judicial reform does not violate Poland’s constitution or international legal obligations and respects the principles of judicial independence and separation of powers.”
Nice words, but they don’t carry much weight. The whole world knows that the State Department does not speak for the president. And, while Trump tweets about a plethora of other topics, he remains conspicuously silent about the sabotage of Polish democracy. Despite the veto of the supreme court bill, the future of Poland’s institutions remains very much an open question. It’s not too late, Mr. President, to speak up for the very principles of Western civilization that you praised in Warsaw when you said: “We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.”
Polish Democracy in the Balance
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Missing the moment.
For die-hard Trump supporters, there is no reprieve. The president’s achievements are eclipsed by the consistency of his bad judgment. For those Trump fans that have not tuned out the news entirely, a cottage industry of reassuring hot takes has taken the place of dispassionate analysis.
In the name of challenging the conventional wisdom, the Wall Street Journal’s James Freeman took a peek at this emerging trend. “Could Trump possibly be winning this week?” his article’s subhead asked. The premise sounds absurd on its face, but it’s really only phrased inelegantly. Trump most assuredly did not “win” the week that followed the traumatic events in Virginia. Nor, though, did the president’s Democratic opponents.
Freeman’s desire to check in with a few “contrarian observers” is a noble one. The individuals he chose are a testament either to the paucity of contrarianism or the absurdity of contrarian arguments.
Don Luskin, the CIO of Trend Macrolytics, speculated that Americans succumbed last week to a “clinical case of mass hysteria.” He suggested the consternation over Donald Trump’s devouring 96 hours of news by issuing three distinct and occasionally contradictory pronouncements about the relative virtue of white supremacist marchers versus violent socialist counter protesters was a media fabrication. “His sin is that he has failed to express his outrage at the event in a particular way,” Luskin wrote, “or, more precisely, that he has expressed it in a way that doesn’t kowtow to the identity politics lobby.”
While Luskin is handing out psychological diagnoses, he might do well to look up the definition of dissociation. Yes, Trump got himself into hot water by declining to condemn avowed racists and anti-Semites without caveat following a murderous terrorist attack (only to backtrack amid pressure and then to backtrack from the backtrack). In doing so, he wasn’t rejecting identity politics but embracing it.
In Trump’s estimation, a variety of foreign forces was responsible for the lot of the silent but angry majority: illegal immigrant labor, Chinese trade practices, America’s allies who should be expected to pay for the privileges of the U.S.-led world order, Europeans that sacrifice Western culture upon the altar of multiculturalism, etc. Trump wasn’t abandoning this white identity politics last week; he was reaffirming fealty to it.
Freeman’s second contrarian is a predictable one. The cartoonist Scott Adams has found a second career in reflexively ascribing brilliance and foresight to every presidential synapse. On Thursday of last week, Trump reacted on Twitter to an ongoing terrorist attack in Spain by alluding to the utterly apocryphal story of General John Pershing’s crimes of war. The story—one Trump knows is false because it was attacked as false when he used to tell it on the campaign trail—alleges that the American war hero discouraged Islamist terrorism in the Philippines by burying Muslims with the bodies of pigs so they might find no peace in the afterlife.
You might not be surprised to learn that Adams thinks this is yet another masterful example of public persuasion. You see, Trump is communicating his toughness on terrorism. By lying, he will compel media to fact-check him, amplifying his persuasive persuasion.
Trump has persuaded himself right into history as the most unpopular president at this point in his presidency in the history of modern polling. There’s no honest way to claim a week that resulted in the broadest critical reaction among Trump’s Republican allies since the release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape was a great week for the president. Even if Trump spent a week skipping through a minefield, though, that doesn’t mean his opponents’ fortunes were advanced.
An online poll commissioned by Axios found that a “remarkable” 40 percent of adults signed on to Trump’s assertion that both demonstrators on the left and the right were responsible for the violence in events in Charlottesville. They see members of the academy defend political violence, even as liberals pen hallucinatory love letters to themselves congratulating their movement on its restraint. They’ve watched with apprehension as an agitated mob tears down a statue of a nondescript Confederate soldier in North Carolina as though it were a likeness of Felix Dzerzhinsky.
They watch as liberal commentators call for an end to the veneration of figures like Washington and Jefferson, just as Trump said they would and (have been doing for years), even as coastal elites insist that no one advocates such things. On Monday, Baltimore awoke to see a 200-year-old monument to Christopher Columbus destroyed by a vandal with a sledgehammer. They know that this is not some isolated event but an extension of the madness they’ve seen take hold of the country, even amid lectures about how connecting these dots is woefully unenlightened.
“The people asking these questions (over and over and over) are not racist,” wrote Senator Ben Sasse. “Rather they’re perplexed by the elite indifference to their fair questions.” Liberals dismiss these sentiments at their peril. Despite a Republican president’s unpopularity and the dysfunction of his party in Congress, Democrats have so far been unable to capitalize on the environment. Even by its own modest standards for success, the Democratic National Committee’s fundraising has been bleak. On Thursday, Cook Political Report shifted the race for Senate in four Democrat-held states in the GOP’s direction.
Attributing Donald Trump’s wink and nod in the direction of white supremacy last week to strategic genius is simply deluded. That does not, however, suggest that Democrats are benefiting from Trump’s recklessness. Liberals have given the public no assurances that they can govern from the center, or that they even see that as a desirable enterprise. And yet, Democrats still appear convinced they are the default beneficiaries when Trump falls on his face, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
How far–how low–do religious leaders end up going when they decide that, in public life, the end justifies any means? Consider the case of Jerry Falwell, Jr. For the Liberty University president, the end was the advancement of social conservatism. The means: Donald Trump.
Falwell endorsed Trump for the GOP nomination ahead of the Iowa Caucuses last year, and soon he emerged as one of the New Yorker’s most ardent evangelical backers. Trump’s dissolute personal life didn’t make him an ideal avatar for the evangelical cause. Nor did his transparently opportunistic change of heart on social issues such as abortion. But Falwell reminded his flock that Trump was running for president, not “pastor-in-chief.”
In a March 2016 interview with a Liberty campus newspaper, he even compared the Donald with David. Hadn’t David, though an adulterer and a murderer, found favor with God? (Yes, who can forget that marvelous Psalm, in which the king cries out to the Lord, “I will be asking for forgiveness, but hopefully I won’t have to be asking for much forgiveness. I’ve had great relationships and developed even greater relationships with ministers”?)
Judging by his Twitter and TV blitz in recent days, Falwell has kept the Trumpian faith through the first eight months of the Trump administration. Trump’s response to Charlottesville, Falwell tweeted, had been “bold” and “truthful.” He added: “So proud of @realdonaldtrump.” Note that Falwell’s praise came after the president suggested that there had been “very fine people” among the Nazis, Klansmen, and neo-Confederates who marched in Charlottesville.
Pressed by ABC’s Martha Raddatz on Sunday to identify these very fine people, Falwell descended to absurdity: “I don’t know if there were historical purists there who were trying to preserve some statutes, I don’t know. But he had inside information that I didn’t.” And more: “He saw videos of who was there. I think he was talking about what he had seen, information he had that I don’t have.” The president gets into trouble, Falwell concluded, “because he doesn’t say what’s politically correct; he says what’s in his heart.”
By now, these are familiar tropes of the Trumpian mind.
If the president says something untrue or absurd, it must be because he has secret knowledge about the matter at hand (in this case, about the supposedly innocent subjective views of people who marched with swastikas and chanted “Jews will not replace us”).
If Trump undermines presidential norms, if his careless rhetoric inflames rather than calms the nation in a moment of crisis, get over it. He isn’t PC–as if the political incorrectness of a statement guarantees that it is also true or worthwhile.
If you object to Trump’s lack of personal grace, his narcissism, his refusal to disavow support from the basest elements of his base, well, he isn’t the pope–again as if only pastors of souls are expected to possess grace, selflessness, and moral discernment.
It didn’t have to be like this for Falwell. One of the great blessings of a faith in a loving, personal God is that it liberates the faithful from the populist leaders and impulses of the moment. As Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention noted in his contribution to National Review’s “Against Trump” issue, “Trump can win only in the sort of celebrity-focused mobocracy … in which sound moral judgments are displaced by a narcissistic pursuit of power combined with promises of ‘winning’ for the masses. Social and religious conservatives have always seen this tendency as decadent and deviant.”
Moore might have added self-degrading.
Podcast: What to expect in a post-Bannon world
The first COMMENTARY podcast of the week finds us—me, Abe Greenwald, and Noah Rothman—wondering at the grandiose plans of Steve Bannon after the White House. A new news channel! War in the Republican party! Etc! All this leads into speculation about 2020, because why not, and why Joe Biden might be the guy to challenge Trump. And then we descend into more crushing morosity as we contemplate whether our divisions nationally are just too large to heal. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Sobriety in September.
August is traditionally the silly season in American politics and journalism, and this August is living up to the sobriquet.
Apparently, not even celestial mechanics is exempt from the necessity to be politically correct. To wit, there’s an article in The Atlantic complaining about Monday’s solar eclipse. The author says that not enough black people live along the path of totality. While it’s true that the northwest and high plains states at the start of the eclipse have very low black populations, that’s not true of Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina at the end of the path.
Horses are in the same category as celestial mechanics. The mascot of the University of Southern California has been for decades a white Arabian horse named Traveler. The current horse is the ninth to bear the name, and he charges across the field every time the team makes a touchdown, ridden by someone dressed up as a Trojan. The problem? The horse’s name is Traveler.
So what, all but serious Civil War history buffs might well ask? But that was, almost, the name of General Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller. Traveller rests in peace near the grave of his master at what is still called, I think, Washington and Lee University. Up the road, Stonewall Jackson’s horse, Little Sorrel, is buried at Virginia Military Institute, although his mounted hide can be seen in a glass case. Stonewall Jackson was a lousy horseman, by the way, and Little Sorrel was a placid creature almost guaranteed not to throw him.
Speaking of horses, the equestrian statue of Joan of Arc in New Orleans, inexplicably left standing, was defaced with graffiti calling for it to be torn down. I hadn’t realized that she fought for the South.
And speaking of General Lee, the statue of Lee in the chapel of Duke University will be removed. However, the statue of George Washington Duke—Confederate sailor, slave owner, and tobacco magnate in whose factories worked poorly paid black labor—will surely not be. His son gave Trinity College $40 million in 1924, and it was promptly renamed Duke University in the old man’s memory.
Oh, and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, in which “temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever” has been defaced with four-letter graffiti.
To paraphrase Shelley, when the silly season comes, can Labor Day be far behind? I hope not.
An imitation mastermind exits a make-believe position
The fact that Steve Bannon, ousted from his senior role at the Trump White House, was its “chief strategist” in the first place is testimony to how accidental this presidency was and is. Who would hire for such a job a person whose first serious involvement in American political life had come only a few years earlier when he found himself running a right-wing media website due to a tragic accident—and whose entire involvement in actual political events was limited to three late months on the Trump campaign? This is the sort of thing that, in a normal universe, might get someone a deputy assistant to the president post as a reward—not a personal fiefdom inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that Bannon is the greatest genius since Picasso. The fact is, Picasso had had art lessons before his Blue Period. Bannon took a central role in the White House with a knowledge base about the practical workings of politics gleaned entirely from books and newspapers. Trump the real-estate guy wouldn’t ever have hired a project manager who’d never so much as built a Lego tower before. In effect, that’s what he did with Bannon.
To be fair, no one really knows what a “strategist” is. The word’s common use can, I believe, be attributed to my friend Bill Kristol, who decided to call himself a “Republican strategist” when he had left the first Bush White House and was being sought to give good quote about the condition of the GOP in 1993 and 1994. From Bill’s clever innovation, a fancy-sounding title for a non-existent title perfect for a TV chyron became a national sensation.
Now the question is, what will the departure of this made-for-TV job mean for the Trump White House? My guess is: Not very much. Stephen Miller, who may be 30 years younger than Bannon but has about five times the political experience, is still in there fighting for what is essentially the Bannon worldview. Trump’s entirely personal decision to lean toward the alt-Right in the past week is an indication that the conservative fear he might move leftward is ridiculous. Trump is gonna dance with the one who brung him here; he thinks he owes those guys.
So basically what I’m saying is: The Bannon subplot is over. Time for the rise of a new White House figure to serve the subject of the next “he’s the real president” newsmagazine cover story.