What is the most salient case for Donald Trump’s reelection? National Review’s Rich Lowry argues that, for still persuadable voters, it is not the president’s record or his personal conduct in office. It certainly isn’t his “barely sketched-out second-term agenda.” If there is an argument in his favor that could yet carry the day, it is that he represents a bulwark against the encroachment of all-consuming leftism into virtually every aspect of American public and private life.
Lowry puts his finger on an argument that has been bubbling beneath the surface of respectable political discourse for some time. This argument’s resonance can be measured in the number of opponents who are taking it seriously.
The Atlantic’s Yascha Mounk has delivered one of the more thorough refutations of the assumptions that animate the sort of voter Lowry describes. Indeed, Mounk seems to take the case more seriously than even the Atlantic’s headline writers do. “Hate Wokeness?” that opinion journal asks. “Vote Biden.” But what Mounk describes isn’t anything so quaint and anodyne as “wokeness.” He concedes that the illiberal left isn’t just real but an urgent threat to liberty and, in some distressing and by no means isolated cases, physical safety.
And yet, Mounk notes that the president’s illiberal impulses are no antidote to this kind of conduct. It’s more likely that Trump’s own illiberalism—his penchant for fantasizing about the legal persecution of his opponents; the blurred distinctions he draws between the racist and violent and the merely culturally aggrieved; and his disregard for republican norms and traditions—intensify these ugly passions among his opponents. Mounk asserts that “removing him from office” should be “the top priority for any voter who is genuinely concerned about the rise of illiberal forces.”
Having written a whole book based on the premise that the anti-liberal right (a group that includes Donald Trump) mimics the excesses of social-justice activists on the left, I am inclined to agree with Mounk in one sense: Trump is no bulwark against the encroachment of cultural leftism. Indeed, the notion that Trump will contain the same forces that have been on the march throughout his presidency is self-refuting. But what Mounk is overly sanguine about is the notion that Joe Biden and the conventional liberalism he represents would put the brakes on this trend.
To start, the idea that the presidency is all that stands in the way of the expurgation of a violent, totalitarian element from within the Democratic Party’s ranks is betrayed by the fact that this is a phenomenon that predates this president.
Trump’s 2016 flirtation with endorsing political violence, and the condemnation heaped upon him when one of his supporters heeded the call, blinded many observers to the fact that Trump’s opponents drew most of the blood that was shed that year. In places like Chicago, Illinois; Costa Mesa and San Jose, California; and Albuquerque, New Mexico, anti-Trump crowds attacked the president’s rallygoers and the police assigned with their protection.
These violent displays of hostility toward what amounted only to expressions of political speech is precisely the sort of illiberalism Mounk regards with due disdain. But the bright line distinguishing speech from violence and violence from speech had been dimmed long before Trump entered politics.
For example, media and political elites were perfectly comfortable suggesting that the French cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, who were slaughtered by radical Islamist terrorists for the crime of publishing religiously insensitive cartoons, had it coming. “[T]oo often,” wrote Financial Times columnist Tony Barber, “editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo.” Time magazine’s Paris Bureau Chief Bruce Crumley agreed, asking, “do you still think the price you paid for printing an offensive, shameful, and singularly humor-deficient parody on the logic of ‘because we can’ was so worthwhile?” Months later, no less a figure than Secretary of State John Kerry endorsed this logic by noting that, unlike the Islamist gunmen who had massacred everyday Parisians in 2015, Charlie Hebdo’s attackers at least had “a rationale you could attach yourself to.”
Sophisticates trafficked in the sentiments above because political violence against the right people had become, if not excusable, at least understandable. And whatever sophisticates believe constitutes sophistication has no more captive audience than on college campuses. The events of 2020 have forced even reluctant critics of campus culture to concede that radicalism in American universities isn’t a self-contained phenomenon. But that radicalism didn’t arise spontaneously. It was being taught when Donald Trump was nothing more than an eccentric game-show host.
The student bodies on American college campuses began expelling “hate-speech” advocates from their campuses—alleged radicals like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleezza Rice—well before Trump. College newspapers (up to and including the august Harvard Crimson) began equating discomfiting speech with “committing an act of violence” before Trump. Polling among younger voters began showing that majorities either “somewhat” or “strongly” agreed that “choosing to use or not use certain words can constitute an act of violence” before Trump. These students did not leave their censorious militancy behind when they graduated; they took it with them into the streets.
Just as Mounk notes, these individuals and their instructors countenance every kind of resistance to the right, even the violent sort, because they convinced themselves that such an extraordinary remedy was commensurate with the scope of the threat they were confronting. It’s a contrivance that has grown more menacing during this presidency, but it predates Trump’s tenure in office.
Ultimately, the remedy for political extremism isn’t going to be found in the conduct of politics as it was practiced in the era of Barack Obama, in part, because that is what got us here in the first place.
Democratic voters in the age of Obama were encouraged to think of the quotidian, narrow, and incremental business of legislative reform as emancipatory. The party’s true believers assured the faithful that they weren’t just relaxing the statute of limitations on certain discrimination claims or loosening eligibility requirements for Medicare recipients; they were changing American culture at the root. That vision of politics as totalistic was common, and it’s not surprising that a form of totalitarianism arose from it—particularly when conventional legislative affairs in Washington failed to deliver a radically reformed American political culture as promised.
The illiberal left has embraced a crippling fatalism about what American institutions can achieve because their expectations are unrealistic. But it’s not just that they are mistaken. They have been misled. Joe Biden might be marginally more inclined toward a constrained view of what politics can achieve than those he competed against for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, but is he more circumspect than the administration in which he served for eight years?
Mounk’s “moderate voices on the left” cannot be expected to “hold their ground against” their more violent comrades after Trump because they did not do so before Trump. If anything, this trend toward radicalism is organic. It won’t disappear entropically. If it is to be stopped, Democrats must actively stop it.