Friday, January 18, 2019

The Times's Rudderless Columnist


Surely, Bret Stephens is very bright. And yet, sometimes his antipathy toward Donald Trump, combined with his happiness at being with the New York Times, clouds his judgment and causes him to lose his mental rudder. Yesterday, he offered up a series of specious analogies, as though to show how clever he is and, simultaneously, to miss the point.

Back in the day, he notes, America was led by George H. W. Bush and Great Britain was led by Margaret Thatcher. Now, he continues, America is led by that dastardly Donald Trump while Britain is led by the monumental failure called Theresa May. The result, the West is leaderless and rudderless, prey to the shifting currents of the world’s great political oceans… or some such.

Allow Stephens his analysis:

In August 1990, George H.W. Bush met Margaret Thatcher in Aspen right after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. The pair resolved not to allow Iraq’s “naked aggression” to stand, and it did not. This was how the West was supposed to work — and how, sometimes, it did.

Today the U.S. and Great Britain scarcely govern themselves, never mind shape world order. Theresa May, who as prime minister resembles Thatcher in no respect other than gender and party, just suffered the worst parliamentary defeat in nearly a century over her Brexit deal. Donald Trump, who as president resembles Bush in no respect other than gender and party, presides over a shuttered government, a revolving-door administration, a furiously divided nation, and a mistrusted and mocked superpower.

Grant that Theresa May has failed miserably. She is a monument to political incompetence. But, does Stephens really believe that the Obama administration— conspicuously absent from his calculus—was a rudder guiding us through the storm? Does he understand that America was divided before Trump took office and that Barack Obama was seriously disrespected on the world stage?

If one were to expand his analogies, we would want to note that George H. W. Bush was succeeded in the oval office by the notoriously decadent sexual predator named Bill Clinton. The American people rejected Bush in favor of a neophyte who had no stature on the world stage. And spent eight years debating sexual harassment and sexual assault. 

Then, the American people, recognizing their mistake, elected Bush’s son to two terms in the White House. When that did not turn out very well, they chose the notably weak and charismatic Barack Obama, a man who preferred apologizing for America to expressing pride in America. How can a man lacking in patriotic fervor lead the American nation? How can a man who thinks that America is the problem, not the solution, be a world leader?

As for Great Britain, the advent of Theresa May might have been an attempt to bring back Thatcher. If anything, May’s failure suggests that Thatcher was an anomaly, not a harbinger of a new day.

And, of course, Stephens has nothing to say about the woman who is supposedly the leader of the Western alliance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Since she has done more than many others to undermine her own country by flooding it with Muslim migrants, she is best left unmentioned.

What does Stephens mean by rudderless? Generally, he does not care about national pride and about competing on the world stage. He does not care about strength or weakness… because that would compromise his argument about Trump and Obama. He cares about a bunch of meaningless ideals:

The West is now rudderless. To be rudderless puts you at the mercy of elements. The elemental forces of politics today are tribalism, populism, authoritarianism and the sewage pipes of social media. Each contradicts the West’s foundational commitments to universalism, representation, unalienable rights, and an epistemology built on fact and reason, not clicks and feelings. We are drifting, in the absence of mind and will, toward a moment of civilizational self-negation.

Consider what he is saying. Universalism is not a fundamental American principle. It is Kantian philosophy. It implies open borders for everyone. America does not want it. Is America thereby less American. As for the epistemology based on fact and reason, try that in any politically correct American classroom today. The last thing today’s woke teachers care about is fact and reason. The visceral hostility to Donald Trump relies on irrational emotion, not facts and reason. Stephens himself has contributed to the ambient hostility, so he should not be so quick to talk.

Stephens believes that it has come to this because we got complacent. Allow him his thought:

When did the drift begin? Probably in 1989, when Francis Fukuyama published his landmark essay “The End of History?” and a decade of democratic complacency took hold. Why worry about the health and fate of liberal democracy when its triumph was inevitable and irreversible? Why teach the benefits of free markets and immigration — or the dangers of socialism and nativism — when history had already rendered a verdict?

Complacency breeds heedlessness. Liberals were heedless when they wrote off moral character as an essential trait of a good presidency. Conservatives (like me) were heedless when we became more concerned about the state of democracy in Iraq than in Iowa. Liberals were heedless when they embraced identity politics without ever thinking it could also be used against them. Conservatives (again, like me) were heedless when we downplayed the significance of the populism and scaremongering infecting the movement via talk radio and Fox News.

Democratic complacency, thy name should be Bill Clinton. We imagined that we were so great that we could indulge our appetite for salacious scandal and not pay a price. Stephens does not seem to care about Islamist terrorism, the threat of radical Islam. No president would have sat idly by while a large part of his nation’s largest city was reduced to rubble. And yet, the Bush freedom agenda, the one that Stephens rightly criticizes, was more about spreading American ideals than winning wars and getting the job done.

Europe has shot itself in the head because, precisely, of its universalism and cosmopolitanism. If you think that the Europeans at open borders because their governments did not have enough programs to promote assimilation, you have not been paying attention. Merkel’s government is now offering to pay migrants to return to their home countries. We shall see how that is going to work out.

The heedlessness occurred on the other side of the Atlantic, too. European integration is a blessing; integration without genuine democratic accountability and consent isn’t. Similarly, immigration is a blessing; immigration without assimilation is a curse. Two generations of European leaders allowed the former without requiring the latter, and then airily dismissed public discontent as politically insignificant and morally illegitimate. Now they are living with the consequences.

True enough, Donald Trump does not embody traditionally conservative values. I have said so on many occasions. And yet, the choice in 2016 was between Trump and yet another Clinton, this one an incompetent fraud. We would have preferred to vote for George H. W. Bush, but he was not on the ballot.

In a weak and rudderless nation, restoring strength and leadership was never going to be an easy process. Stephens fails here because he seems unwilling to see the problem in the presidents who preceded Trump.

What about the United States? Among many conservatives I know, the view of Trump is that chaotic management, clownish behavior and ideological apostasies are irritants, not calamities, and prices worth paying for deregulation, tax cuts, and conservative courts.

Really? These same conservatives spent the past 30 years preaching the importance of judgment, good character, and respect for institutions in the person of the president. They were right. What will they say when they find these attributes missing in the person of a president whose policy preferences and political affiliation they don’t share?

Blaming it on Trump means that the columnist is so consumed by his own passions that he has lost his mental rudder. Which means that he is flailing, not reasoning.

4 comments:

trigger warning said...

Stephens skewers the EUniks for eschewing "integration without genuine democratic accountability and consent."

In other words, they weren't populist enough. What'cha smokin' dude?


"Ideological apostasies"? Ideologie ├╝ber alles, eh?
:-D

Sam L. said...

"Complacency breeds heedlessness. Liberals were heedless when they wrote off moral character as an essential trait of a good presidency. Conservatives (like me) were heedless when we became more concerned about the state of democracy in Iraq than in Iowa. Liberals were heedless when they embraced identity politics without ever thinking it could also be used against them. Conservatives (again, like me) were heedless when we downplayed the significance of the populism and scaremongering infecting the movement via talk radio and Fox News." "Conservatives like him"? He supposes himself as conservative. As he's a columnist for the NYT, I can NOT believe that he is a conservative of any stripe.

"Blaming it on Trump means that the columnist is so consumed by his own passions that he has lost his mental rudder. Which means that he is flailing, not reasoning." He took the NYT-geld, and must DO as he is told. Cynical? One must be, these days.

David Foster said...

Politics is downstream of culture...although there is a feedback loop back the other way, culture>>>politics is the primary direction of cause-and-effect. Doesn't sound like Brett S is thinking in those terms.

Sam L. said...

Stephens may be bright, as you say, but he doesn't seem to be smart.