On Thursday, the progressive left treated itself to an orgiastic display of self-destruction. In the name of opposing all that Donald Trump deigns to grace with his favor, American progressives found themselves attacking Bill Clinton’s brand of centrist politics, defending woefully misunderstood calls for “jihad,” and dismissing unqualified praise for the West as racially suspect.
Democrats lashed out at former Clinton Strategist Mark Penn on Thursday for recommending that the Democratic Party rediscover its respect for Christians and working-class Trump voters and embrace fiscal conservatism. The nearly unanimous response from the activist left was to dismiss this sage advice. “The administration that he served in locked up more black, African-American men than those enslaved in 1850,” said former Bernie Sanders campaign staffer Tezlyn Figar. Nostalgia for the 1990s may be politically potent, but it is also very un-woke.
When members of the left weren’t attacking one of the Democratic Party’s most popular figures, they were defending the word “jihad” and its champion, Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour. In a speech to the Islamic Society of North America over the weekend, the Muslim liberal activist said it is her hope “that Allah accepts from us that as a form of jihad….we stand up to those who oppress our communities.” Sarsour defined the term as “a word of truth in front of a tyrant ruler or leader,” though any sentient being knows that her interpretation is subject to much debate in the Muslim world. She added that it is her hope that the Muslim community would be “perpetually outraged” and that their first priority should not be to “assimilate” or “please any other people and authority.”
Naturally, the story of a Muslim activist who’s embraced by mainstream Democratic outfits while calling for a form of “jihad” against the president wasn’t treated as the real story. The Republican reaction to the story was the story. “Muslim activist Linda Sarsour’s reference to ‘jihad’ draws conservative wrath,” read the Washington Post’s headline. “Right-Wing Outlets Read Violence into Sarsour’s Anti-Trump ‘Jihad,’” declared the Daily Beast. “The people disagreeing with @lsarsour clearly don’t understand what Jihad means,” wrote Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill, who was quoted favorably in Time magazine. Of course, Sarsour was not inciting violence, but her liberal allies now appear committed to explaining why this is not a pipe.
Among Thursday’s tiresome outrages, perhaps none was more destructive to the progressive left’s general allure than the liberal reaction to Donald Trump’s speech in Poland. It was, perhaps, the most classically liberal and historically erudite speech that Donald Trump has ever made. It praised Western values, heritage, and achievement without qualification. For the left, however, adoration for the West undiluted by apologetics for racism, bigotry, and colonial subjugation is not just a display of ignorance. It might as well be an endorsement of those evils.
It wasn’t just Trump’s praise for Western achievement that was deemed a display of subtle racism, although it did not escape that censure from the left’s cultural arbiters. It was also his warnings about the threats facing the West: “We must work together to confront forces,” Trump said, “that threaten over time to undermine these values and erase bonds of culture, faith, and tradition that make us who we are.” Trump added: “Do we have the desire and courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”
Because this speech was drafted by anti-immigration activist Stephen Miller, among others, these lines certainly referred not just to threats from without, such as those presented by a revanchist Russia and Islamist radicalism, but also those within, such as the influx of refugees from the Muslim world into Europe. That paranoia can be toxic, and it merits skepticism. But praising the West, the Enlightenment to which it gave birth, and the standards of prosperity, tolerance, and civilization that typify it is not insidious in the slightest. To suggest otherwise is histrionic. Guess how the progressive left reacted to Trump’s speech?
“The West is not an ideological or economic term,” wrote the Atlantic’s Peter Beinart. “The West is a racial and religious term.” “The ‘south’ and ‘east’ only threaten the West’s ‘survival’ if you see non-white, non-Christian immigrants as invaders,” Beinart insisted. “They only threaten the West’s ‘survival’ if by ‘West’ you mean white, Christian hegemony.” This is true only if we accept Beinart’s premise; that the West is only a racial and religious affiliation and not a set of political traditions. If we see the West as a champion of individual liberty, freedom of worship, reason and rationality, and republican governance—not to mention a bulwark against the forces of reaction, totalitarianism, and theocracy—Beinart’s definition is both narrow and incoherent.
That incoherence didn’t stop the progressive left from joining him. “President Donald Trump issued a battle cry—for ‘family, for freedom, for country, and for God,’” wrote Vox.com’s Sarah Wildman, “in a speech that often resorted to rhetorical conceits typically used by the European and American alt-right.” “Imagine being a political writer in this moment and being utterly unable to identify clear white nationalist dog whistles,” wrote CBS News political analyst and Slate correspondent Jamelle Bouie. “[Y]ou don’t have to have a deep familiarity with the tropes of white supremacy to see this s*** for what it clearly is.”
Attacking centrist politics, criticizing those who react negatively to the liberal rejection of assimilation and endorsement of “jihad,” and declaring that praise for the West is a form of veiled racism; these are odd ways to go about making friends and allies. The progressive wing of the party appears determined to swell the ranks of their opposition, if only by defining their opposition in absurdly broad terms. If the progressive left was actively trying to alienate its potential supporters and marginalize itself, what would it do differently?