Noah Millman

Are Religious Voters Even Backing Trump?

Damon Linker asks a question in his column today at The Week:

The evangelical embrace of Trump (after considerable early skepticism about his bid for the White House) is remarkable for several reasons. It indicates that evangelicals are considerably less concerned about the personal moral and religious character of presidential candidates than many (including, I suspect, many evangelicals themselves) have typically presumed. It also demonstrates that social conservatives are more willing than members of the Republican Party’s other two major factions — pro-business economic libertarians and hawkish foreign policy internationalists — to embrace a brash, populist insurgent. Many members of the first group have remained on the sidelines and some appear willing to entertain defecting to Libertarian Party ticket of Gary Johnson and William Weld; members of the second, meanwhile, have gravitated to Hillary Clinton.

But not evangelicals.

The question is why. Why would voters who engage in politics in large part because of their attachment to a social-conservative agenda rally around a blustering, bragging vulgarian who’s on his third marriage; who specializes in such un-Christ-like behavior as mocking a reporter with a disability; who favors such policies as rounding up and deporting millions, torturing terrorism suspects, banning the members of specific religions from entering the United States, and striking first with nuclear weapons; and perhaps most pertinent of all, who shows no interest in, knowledge of, or sympathy for the social-conservative agenda?

He goes on to dispense with possible reasons for an actual affinity, before coming to the following conclusion:

Today the religious right’s theoconservative agenda of injecting orthodox Judeo-Christianity into the nation’s public life has shriveled into an effort to protect devout Christians from being forced by the government to conform with the dictates of anti-discrimination law in all of their dealings with the wider world. Which means that a movement to reclothe the “naked public square” in vestments has become a rear-guard defense of religious freedom.

If you’re part of an ambitious, self-confident movement out to transform the country in a traditionalist Christian direction, you want a president like Dubya, who will speak boldly and unapologetically about his faith and how it informs his policy agenda. But if you’re feeling defeated and demoralized, weak and vulnerable, you probably want a president who will serve as your protector.

That’s what I suspect a fair number of evangelical Trump supporters believe they’ve found in the Republican nominee.

That’s pretty much what Rod Dreher has been arguing in our dialogue on the subject (see here, here and here to catch up). I’ve made my argument in those previous posts about why religious conservatives shouldn’t be looking at it that way. But are they?

One reason I’m skeptical is that it’s really only evangelical Protestants who have rallied to Trump’s side.

Catholics are tilting the other way. As Leah Libresco reported recently at, Clinton is not only winning Catholics generally — she’s winning Catholics who attend mass at least weekly by a comparable margin of around 20%. And this isn’t just a Hispanic effect. White Catholics went roughly 3-to-2 for Romney over Obama in 2012. But they are split roughly 50-50 between Clinton and Trump — not because they like Clinton better than Obama, but because of extremely negative feelings about Trump.

Mormon voters were obviously especially strong supporters of their co-religionist in 2012. But they have been a solidly Republican bloc of voters for a many cycles. Not this time, though. The LDS Church made a point of explicitly rebuking Trump back in December, and the Republican nominee’s reputation among Utahns remains so bad that people are speculating he could even lose the state.

Mass-attending Catholics and Mormons are key parts of the religious conservative coalition that George W. Bush cemented. And they have been very vocal about their fears about the application of anti-discrimination law. But they are not getting on the Trump train the way evangelical Protestants are. Why not?

Well, let’s look at evangelical Protestants themselves. It’s notable that the most regular churchgoers are supporting Trump at the same overwhelming rates to their support for Romney and McCain. It’s possible that this group is looking for a “protector.” But it’s also possible that they are just being loyal to their party — or that they have more of a Manichean mindset than, say, mass-going Catholics. In that regard, it’s worth recalling that prior to 2012 there was real concern that evangelical Protestants might not come out for Romney because he is a member of a church some evangelical groups consider to be a pagan cult. But they didn’t falter in their support. Which suggests that we already knew that evangelical Protestants were perfectly willing to support a nominee who wasn’t “one of them” provided he checked some other set of boxes.

On the other hand, mass-going Catholics may abhor Clinton’s stance on abortion but find other things appealing about the Democratic message. And Mormons, who place such great emphasis on personal rectitude, may be less-willing to forgive Trump his appalling personal behavior than are sola fide Protestants. Finally, Catholics and Mormons are likely far more sensitive to the fact that Trump is actively hostile to a minority religious group, and apprehensive about the precedent thus set. White evangelical Protestants may not see that as a problem in the same way.

But the real movement towards Trump has been among relatively unchurched evangelical Protestants — people who don’t go regularly even on Sundays. This group has moved more than 20 points in Trump’s direction, according to Pew. It seems to me very unlikely that they are moved by the search for a specifically religious protector.

In any event, I strongly suspect that evangelical leaders have noticed who is showing up for Trump rallies. So one possible reason why they have been lining up behind Trump is that they know where their flock is — as well as where the lost sheep are flocking. And that’s where they need to go politically to continue to be heard. After all, they largely backed other horses like Rubio during the nomination fight, and saw their parishioners rush to Trump’s banner. If they don’t support Trump now, who’s going to listen to them if he loses?


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Clinton and the God Vote

Bill and Hillary Clinton at a Texas campaign rally in 1992. Joseph Sohm /
Bill and Hillary Clinton at a Texas campaign rally in 1992. Joseph Sohm /

I appreciate Rod Dreher’s response to my post questioning religious conservatives who are supporting Trump because they think he’ll be better for their distinct issues.

As he describes the bottom line:

[T]he religious conservative case for Trump comes down to gambling. That Hillary would be a disaster for religious conservatives is one of the safest bets you can make in American politics. Betting on Trump is a long-shot gamble, but as I tell myself when I buy lottery tickets, hey, you never know. Even if Trump were to come through on religious liberty protections, voting for him is still taking an incredible gamble on so many other things, both domestically and internationally.

Still, it might be worth it to some. If a religious conservative takes all of this into consideration and still chooses to vote for Trump, I won’t judge him. I suppose it is possible that I may be that man come November. I don’t see how, but maybe I will be. (I also might be the man who votes for Hillary Clinton, though it’s even more unlikely.) But I do not understand religious conservatives who enthusiastically support Trump, as opposed to supporting him in fear and trembling, knowing what a bad man he is. They are no better than the feminists who rallied to Bill Clinton’s side during the Lewinsky scandal because no matter how much Bill’s actions and character went against the things they believe in, it was more important to deny the Right a victory than to stand on principle. Similarly, many conservative Christians involved in politics this fall are not covering themselves with glory, to put it charitably.

I could make a crack about how I thought traditional Christians were morally opposed to gambling, but I won’t.

I could also point out that betting on religious freedom protections from a candidate explicitly running on heightened vigilance against a particular religious group is a pretty poor strategy. Even if you don’t think Trump himself will be cracking down on the freedom of Christians, how do you think the precedents he’d set with regard to Muslims will be used by a progressive secularist Administration in the future? His fellow conservatives in the LDS church have certainly thought about that even if he hasn’t.

But I won’t.

Instead, I’ll ask another question: what’s the plan if Hillary Clinton wins?

Or, let me pull back to a broader question. Suppose that you look out a couple of decades, and you see, as Dreher does, an America in which traditional Christians are a dwindling minority ever more clearly out of step with American culture, to the point of mutual incomprehension and even loathing. In that world, a polarized party system in which one party is resolutely determined to circumscribe the freedom of that dwindling minority while the other party pays lip service to its defense is a world in which that minority’s life gets progressively worse and worse year after year. One can dispute the probability of that world coming to pass, but I believe that’s what Dreher believes is coming.

If it is, my question is: what’s the political strategy for heading it off? Voting over and over again for a party that pays less and less attention to your concerns is clearly a losing strategy — for obvious reasons. So what’s the alternative?

It seems to me, clearly, that the alternative is making an overture to the enemy party. After all, as Yitzhak Rabin famously said, you don’t make peace with your friends — you make peace with your enemies. And you cannot make peace with your enemies if you decide, from the start, that your enemies will never make peace, on any terms. It seems to me that if Dreher really believes the Democratic Party is moving in the direction of outright persecution of traditional Christians, then it is a moral and practical imperative for traditional Christians to engage in outreach to the Democratic Party to try to change their course, and to keep trying if the first efforts bear no fruit.

But suppose the enemy really is as implacable as you imagine. If the correlation of forces is similarly dire, then what we’re talking about isn’t making peace but negotiating the terms of surrender. Even then, terms have to actually be offered. And it’s the people seeking an end to hostilities who have to offer them.

If that is the case, then — and I know this is a very ugly way of putting it, and I apologize in advance, but Dreher himself is the one who brought up “Japanese-soldier Religious Rightists hiding out on a desert island in the South Pacific” — my question is: what is the traditional Christian version of “we’ll surrender if you let us keep our Emperor?”

To be clear: I’m not endorsing Dreher’s worldview, nor his perception of what the Democratic Party wants or what the immediate future portends for America’s traditional Christian groups. I think he’s far too pessimistic about the prospects for some kind of change in the Democratic Party’s attitude towards traditional religious believers. I also think he’s far too pessimistic about the prospects for traditional religious groups in the emerging America — I think all kinds of churches may well flourish in the next twenty years, even as others are going to falter (and personally I expect some of the biggest conservative denominations may join the liberal Protestant mainline in faltering). I do agree that the Religious Right as we’ve understood it since the 1970s is thoroughly played out as a political force, and that this radically changes the context within which traditional Christians need to pursue their interests. But that doesn’t imply that I agree with all of the implications Dreher derives from that fact.

Nonetheless: if you believe the situation is as dire as Dreher seems to believe, then I think I’m asking a pertinent question.

I’d love to know the answer.

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The Incoherence of the Religious Conservative Case For Trump

I have to quibble with Ross Douthat’s “shoe on the other foot” analysis of why it’s tough for conservative Trump critics to get off the Trump train. But I do think the game is worth playing. So let me try it.

First of all, come up with an appropriate Republican analog of Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton is a thoroughly mainstream and highly experienced politician who has held numerous public offices. Her foreign policy views put her on the right edge of the Democratic party. She’s got a history of relative centrism on a host of domestic and economic issues, including some social issues, but is running in this election, per Douthat, as an extremist on the issues that matter most to the social right, and to the left of her historic positions across the board.

The Republican analog to that description is someone with Colin Powell’s experience and views on foreign policy, John Kasich’s experience and views on domestic and economic policy, and Mike Huckabee’s views on social issues, running on a platform substantially written by Paul Ryan. Of course, Clinton is also viewed as deeply untrustworthy and corrupt, so let’s say that the Republican analog in question has Richard Nixon’s reputation for probity and transparency.

I can’t think of any single Republican who looks anything like that description. Santorum is an absolute hysteric; Cruz is an across-the-board extremist with virtually no experience; and Newt Gingrich is a highly volatile mess of a man both personally and ideologically. Mitt Romney is actually not a terrible analog in some ways, if one imagines a version of Mitt Romney who could plausibly be charged with being personally corrupt and not just tin-eared and blatantly ambitious. Clinton, after all, isn’t really a liberal version of Mike Huckabee on social issues — she’s just running as one this time around.

Second, pick a fair Democratic analog to Donald Trump. It has to be somebody not merely utterly unfit for high office, but also completely untrustworthy on those same social issues on which our imaginary Republican is extreme. Let’s imagine that well-known conspiracy theorist Oliver Stone somehow became the Democratic nominee, and let’s say he had a history of saying that abortion was murder and that homosexuality is a disease, but that during the campaign he made half-hearted gestures toward promising to appoint liberal judges. Meanwhile, he’s got to be unreliable on a host of other important issues as well — occasionally suggesting that he’d privatize Medicare, say, or calling for a Balanced Budget Amendment.

But: our hypothetical Oliver Stone nominee has staked out an extreme and unwavering position on an issue dear to the hearts of part of the Democratic coalition, a part that feels like it just can’t make itself heard. He’s called for a complete and permanent withdrawal of all American forces from the Middle East; an end to support for Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states; the immediate closure of Guantanamo Bay and the release of all prisoners back to their home countries; to rip up the Patriot Act, ban drone warfare — basically, an end to the War on Terror in all its forms, the whole nine yards, with no equivocation or qualification.

That, I would venture to say, is a fair analogy. Am I confident that hordes of Democrats would turn to “sleazy Romney” if the other choice were Oliver Stone? No — but I don’t think it’s an incredibly big ask. Frankly, I think it would be a no-brainer for just about anybody, with the possible exception of people who thought ending the War on Terror in all its forms was the overwhelmingly most important issue, one that justified a complete break with normalcy, even including the election of someone manifestly unsuited to the office.

Is Clinton making a huge ask of Republican-leaning voters? It depends which voters. Clinton is making obvious overtures to foreign policy neoconservatives. She’s also reached out to Chamber of Commerce conservatives to come aboard. She’s making asks in each case — but hardly extraordinary ones. She is making no similar overtures to religious conservatives, or to conservatives who care about Trump’s signature issues of immigration and political correctness — instead, she is drawing a strong contrast with Trump. In other words, Douthat’s problem isn’t that Clinton is making too big of an ask generally — it’s that she’s making a big ask of him specifically, because he is not only a religious conservative, but is also sympathetic to much of Trump’s critique of the domestic and foreign policy consensus, while recognizing that Trump himself is a walking catastrophe. That’s a tough spot to be in — but as Douthat realizes, it’s entirely the GOP’s fault for putting him there.

Meanwhile, for those who can’t stand either candidate, there’s always Gary Johnson. He’s a perfectly normal candidate in a host of ways, to the point where libertarians are legitimately annoyed that he’s more of a Republican than a libertarian. If you’re a conservative appalled by Trump but unable to stomach a vote for Clinton, why not vote for him? It cannot be because Johnson is socially liberal and won’t reliably appoint conservative judges, because to say that is to imply that Trump would be reliable on these matters, a view for which there is no evidence whatsoever. And if you really, really can’t vote for anybody with whom you don’t agree on these conservative shibboleths, there’s always Darrell Castle. No, to rule out these kinds of protest votes, you have to argue not merely that you can’t stomach voting for Clinton, but that Clinton is so bad that you should vote for Trump specifically in order to stop her from winning. And I just don’t think there’s any way Ross Douthat believes that. Which means he knows Clinton is right about who he needs to root for, regardless of who he will vote for, and he just wishes she’d make it easier.

Finally, I have to ask a serious question of folks like Rod Dreher who are seriously considering voting for Donald Trump because of judges. If you really believe that traditional Christian conservatives are on the brink of suffering real and substantial persecution, and you believe that electing Donald Trump so that he’ll appoint some right-leaning judges will prevent that from happening, then it seems to me you believe two contradictory things.

This country has had Democratic and Republican Presidents in recent memory. The pendulum swings this way and that. Each side periodically gets to pick a bunch of judges, and some of those judges vote more or less the way you want them to on some of your pet issues. Meanwhile, the country continues to change — and the judges often change their views along with it. Frankly, in the face of a real popular movement to stifle traditional Christian witness, a handful of additional judges would prove largely impotent. And if a handful of judges really could sway things, then how much more so could a real and substantial movement of public engagement, civil disobedience, etc.

If the political tide is running strongly against you, that’s not a reason for apocalypticism. It’s a reason to rethink your political strategy — which is the exact opposite of what a vote for Trump would represent.

After all, Donald Trump’s primary victory is the final proof that even the religiously conservative base of the GOP doesn’t really care about things like abortion and gay rights, because Trump manifestly didn’t care about these questions or was actively on the other side from religious conservatives, and yet he won plenty of evangelical Christian votes in the primaries. So voting for Trump out of religious conservative conviction sends a clear-as-day message that Republicans need do absolutely nothing on those issues in order to win religious conservative votes. It is a statement of abject surrender.

Look: there is nobody running in this election in whom religious conservatives should put the slightest sliver of hope with regard to their issues. If you really care overwhelmingly about those issues, you have a practical obligation not to vote for President. Large scale abstentions by religious conservatives would make it abundantly clear that attention must be paid to their concerns, in a way that voting for Trump never could do.

Or, if issues like abortion are just one of a complex of issues that have to be weighed in any election, then vote for the person who you think is best on balance, and fight for those other issues on another front. Maybe that means voting for Trump — in which case you’ll still need to be doing that fighting on other fronts, because trust me, Trump is not going to have your back. Regardless, don’t kid yourself that a vote for Trump will advance the cause of religious conservatism one iota. You know full well it won’t.

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Obama and the Limits of Progressive Patriotism

Paul Waldman uses the perfect phrase to describe Obama’s speech last night:

For the last eight years, Obama has been making a case for a progressive patriotism, one based on the idea of “a more perfect union,” that phrase from the preamble to the Constitution that he returns to again and again. It’s the idea that the American story is one of constant improvement and progression toward the realization of the country’s founding ideals. In that story, change isn’t incidental, it’s essential. And it’s a fundamentally different kind of patriotic story from the one conservatives usually tell. It’s why Obama frequently brings up dark periods in our country’s history, like slavery (as the first lady did on Monday) or Jim Crow or McCarthyism — those periods are a critical part of the story, because they remind us what we overcame.

So over these years, Obama has taught Democrats how to clearly and unequivocally celebrate America while remaining true to their progressive values. And in the process, he turned his party into a confident one, after it had cowered in fear for a quarter-century before his arrival. It seems like a long time ago now, but during that time Democrats were constantly afraid — afraid they’d be called unpatriotic, afraid they’d be called weak on crime, afraid they’d be called tax-and-spenders, and afraid that Republicans who always seemed more skilled and more ruthless would whip the stuffing out of them.

They don’t look that way anymore, do they? This may be a party that has suffered defeats at the state level (as the president’s party often does), and is still in the minority in Congress. But Donald Trump’s campaign of white nationalism has made Democrats more sure than ever that the future belongs to them, their broad coalition, and their inclusive vision.

And more than a few Republicans understand it too. On Wednesday evening, Tony Fratto, who served as a spokesperson for George W. Bush, tweeted, “Watching Democrats talk about America the way Republican candidates used to talk about America.” As Obama neared the end of his speech, Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Reviewtweeted, “American exceptionalism and greatness, shining city on hill, founding documents, etc. — they’re trying to take all our stuff.”

But it isn’t their stuff alone, not anymore.

What these Republicans are responding to isn’t just that Obama is stealing their rhetoric or their optimistic stance. There’s a real kinship between progressive patriotism and the patriotism of the conservative movement, inasmuch as both assume that what America is about, and what makes her worth fighting for, is ideological in nature. There are real differences between the left-wing progressive and right-wing liberal versions of that ideology, but in either case America is something that mere Americans can only aspire to live up to.

The problem with an ideological definition of American patriotism, though, is that we don’t actually all agree on the ideological content. Progressive patriotism, like movement conservatism’s version of patriotism, turns dissenters into un-Americans.

Worse still, it invites the inversion of the proper relationship between the government and the governed. The promise of democracy is, maximally, that we will learn to reason together towards arrangements that we can all live with, and minimally that the government will be accountable to us for its actions. But if the ideal arrangements are objectively out there, rather than something we reason together towards, then democracy becomes a test of the people — they are the ones held accountable, the ones who fail if they vote the wrong way.

Donald Trump’s appeal is, in part, a visceral reaction to that way of thinking on the part of both the right and the left. He’s a walking reminder that the people are sovereign, and that American patriotism is defined not by a theory of what America stands for but by what actual Americans feel.

Trump’s alienated voters don’t feel what Obama feels. That doesn’t mean they’ve failed him. That means he’s failed them, in the sense that he has failed to speak to them in a language they understand, which is his job.

You know who knew how to speak that language? Bill Clinton. Take a look at his speech from Tuesday night. Ostensibly aimed at Sanders voters, what struck me as most important about it was the way in which it reflected a real understanding of the mentality of those who have moved, over the past twenty years, from Clinton to Trump.

Or just check out what I had to say about that speech in my latest column for The Week:

Here’s how the important part begins:

There are clear, achievable, affordable responses to our challenges. But we won’t get to them if America makes the wrong choice in this election. That’s why you should elect her. And you should elect her because she’ll never quit when the going gets tough. She’ll never quit on you. [Bill Clinton]

As someone who’s argued that loyalty should be the key theme for the Clinton campaign, this brought a smile to my face. But it’s worth noting as well that loyalty is also a cardinal virtue among Appalachian whites. Moreover, suspicions of disloyalty are precisely what have made Barack Obama uniquely unpalatable in this region. Bill Clinton is taking this tack not only because it’s a good one for his wife, and because it connects her personal story to her qualities as a candidate in an effective way, but because it’s a good way to speak to the voters she’s having the most trouble with.

She sent me in this primary to West Virginia where she knew we were going to lose, to look those coal miners in the eye and say I’m down here because Hillary sent me to tell you that if you really think you can get the economy back you had 50 years ago, have at it, vote for whoever you want to. But if she wins, she is coming back for you to take you along on the ride to America’s future. [Bill Clinton]

This may be the most important sentence of the whole peroration, but not because of the content. He’s talking about the primary against Sanders, but the argument works equally well to puncture the magical nonsense claims of the Trump campaign. But what’s really important is how the argument is being made. Bill Clinton is talking to voters in West Virginia. He’s talking to them, not about them. He’s not reducing them to psychology or sociology. He’s giving them agency. What they think matters. What they do matters. And it’s their choiceThey have to decide whether they are going to let themselves be played for sentimental fools or not.

It’s sad to realize how infrequently Democrats in the Obama era have talked this way, particularly to this constituency.

And so I say to you, if you love this country, you’re working hard, you’re paying taxes and you’re obeying the law and you’d like to become a citizen, you should choose immigration reform over somebody that wants to send you back.

If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together. We want you.

If you’re a young African American disillusioned and afraid, we saw in Dallas how great our police officers can be, help us build a future where nobody is afraid to walk outside, including the people that wear blue to protect our future. [Bill Clinton]

The most important word in this section is “if,” and the application of that conditional is instructive. Clinton isn’t saying to native-born American citizens that they should welcome immigrants. He’s saying to undocumented immigrants that if they love America, then they should try to stay. He’s not saying that Christian Americans should avoid prejudice against Muslims. He’s saying to Muslim Americans that if they love America, then they should join the fight against America’s enemies. He’s not saying to white Americans that black lives matter. He’s saying to African Americans that if they are afraid of police violence, then theyshould work to reduce violence generally, both by and against the police.

Implicitly, Clinton is assuming some of the key premises of the archetypal Trump voter. There is such a thing as “America” that can be loved or not, and that the condition of entry to a political coalition is demonstrating that love. The job that the police and the armed forces do is inherently noble, and even those who fear being on the receiving end of state violence can only join the coalition to reduce it if they first acknowledge its essential nobility of purpose. He’s challenging the people who Trump’s voters likely view as the ones making demands to instead become allies of the sorts of folks implicitly assumed to already be in the fight, because we already know they love America.

It’s a vision of broad national unity across a multiracial and multicultural nation. But it is a vision that builds that unity on a core implicit identity of Americanness that must be chosen, even earned. Which, as it happens, is just how lots of white folks back in Bill Clinton’s part of the country tend to view the matter.

My conclusion:

Donald Trump is telling a story about American identity that is exceptionally ill-suited to the country that actually exists, much less the country that is emerging. That story is a corrective, though, to the failed ideological stories told by the past two administrations, one a story that put Christian religiosity at the core of American identity, and another that put progressivism at the core.

If the Democrats are to be able to speak to America as a whole, and have a chance of becoming a true majority party and not just capturing the presidency from time to time, they will need a way of talking about American identity that is neither exclusively ideological nor narrowly ethno-national. Their audience for any such message will have to include the most nationalistically minded among the American tribes.

And the starting point for speaking to anybody is learning to speak their language. Even if your aim is to change it.

We already know that Hillary Clinton won’t inspire progressive believers the way Obama can. We’ll see tonight whether she’s learned a trick or two from her husband.

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Mid-Century Modern

Some of my readers may have noticed that I’m writing less about theater in this space than I had previously. But I haven’t given it up entirely! Indeed, I’ve got a new piece up at The New Republic about a handful of exceptional European productions of classic American plays that came through New York this past season.

The middle of the 20th century was a golden age for the American theater. Tennessee Williams wrote his first masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie, in 1944, towards the end of World War II, and A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof both followed in the subsequent decade. Eugene O’Neill wrote his titanic mature works, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh, during World War II, and each was first performed in the first dozen years after the war. And in the same period, Arthur Miller gave the world arguably his greatest works: All My SonsDeath of a SalesmanThe Crucible, and A View From the Bridge.

These plays are the mainstay of the American theatrical canon, the ones that the greatest actors of every generation seek to leave their mark on, and make their own.

But are they still our own?

A series of recent productions that came to New York with great acclaim have implicitly questioned whether we can still see these plays for what they are, or whether they need to be made new to avoid seeming stale. These productions took plays that are deeply rooted in a particular time and place—and that deal, urgently, with the issues of their day—and ripped them up forcefully to re-pot them in fresh soil.

In foreign soil, one might say, as the three productions I’m thinking of in particular were directed by Europeans. This approach, of course, is not unique to European directors. For well over a generation, American directors have been taking Shakespeare’s plays and setting them wherever and whenever they liked—whether in a particular time and place, or an abstract nowhere, or a cosmopolitan everywhere that partakes of whatever bits of history and culture that may lie to hand. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has even famously (or infamously) commissioned translations of Shakespeare into more familiar English. For these classic works, whatever enables the audience to connect to the character and story is fair game.

What’s new is applying that approach to American classics. If these European directors are right, and these plays need a kind of translation to come fully alive, what does that say about our relationship to theater—and our relationship to our own past?

If you’d like to know what I think, check out the whole article there.


Does It Matter If Putin Wants Trump?

The evidence that Vladimir Putin would prefer Donald Trump to win the American Presidential election is, by this point, pretty overwhelming. Whether or not Putin is behind the Wikileaks dump of hacked DNC emails, Russia Today’s coverage should make it clear enough who the Kremlin is behind. But should it matter to American voters?

It obviously matters if Trump is actually beholden to Putin for financial reasons, which is an extremely good reason to demand that he rise to the level of financial disclosure that has become standard practice for Presidential candidates. Republicans who raise completely legitimate questions about the Clinton Foundation’s buck-raking can’t really dispute that. It also obviously matters if Trump is a man of such weak character that cheap flattery from a foreign despot would readily sway his administration’s policies.

But does it matter what Russia wants? Should we be outraged if they are trying to influence the American election? Should we be incensed if they stooped to dirty tricks to do it? If so, I’m having a hard time figuring out why.

It should come as a shock to exactly nobody that Russia spies on American political institutions. Nor should anyone paying attention be at all surprised that Putin would resort to dirty and underhanded means to achieve his political objectives – he’s done far worse – and not only in his own back yard. If there’s a scandal about the email hacking, it’s that the DNC was so vulnerable to being hacked.

And it should be even less shocking that Russia would care to influence an American election. We do it all the time – and we use tricks at least as dirty. We’ve even done it in a partisan manner, with Republican and Democratic Presidents backing horses abroad who are more favorable to their partisan agendas. And other countries have done so as well with us. Benjamin Netanyahu has made no secret of his preference for Republican Presidents, nor did Chiang Kai-shek before him. Nor were our European allies’ Democratic preferences in the 2004 Presidential election exactly a secret.

The Wikileaks dump itself is both appalling and banal. It’s appalling because of the outrageous breach of privacy. If a rival American campaign, or a domestic interest, engaged in those kinds of dirty tricks, criminal prosecution would be in order. But it’s banal because what has been revealed (so far) is merely embarrassing, and barely that. As anyone with eyes could have seen beforehand, the DNC was not as neutral as it formally claimed to be. This should be just as shocking as the revelation from the Sony hack that male Hollywood stars are paid more than women, or that behind closed doors executives make racial and other comments that are decidedly not appropriate for public disclosure.

But precisely because this kind of behavior from Russia should be no surprise, there’s no obvious reason why it should prompt a change in policy, or in America’s voters’ preferences.

Trump is running on policies that are more-favorable to Russia’s interests than Hillary Clinton is. He’s also running on policies that are less-favorable to Chinese interests. Either Trump or Clinton could be wrong about one, or the other, or both, or neither. But what really matters is whether those policies would be good for American interests, and whether either of them would be effective at implementing them.

And no: saying “I’ll put America first” doesn’t get you a pass on either question.

UPDATE: Let me be clear about what I’m saying. I don’t think it matters much if Russia wants Trump to be President. I also don’t find it especially shocking that Russia is engaged in espionage, and would resort to dirty tricks to win the election. None of this as such should especially affect our opinion of Russia — or of Trump.

But Trump’s actual ties to Putin, financial or otherwise, do indeed matter — enormously. And Trump’s reaction to the revelations most certainly matters as well. The only appropriate response is to condemn foreign interference. Today, Trump did exactly the opposite. He explicitly cheered on Russia’s hacking, and said he hopes it proves even more fruitful.

Trump will undoubtedly defend himself by saying that we don’t know whether Russia is even behind the hack, that the American people deserve the truth from whatever source, etc. There is absolutely no defense for his comments, or for his attitude. Trump is calling on a foreign power to break American law in order to influence an American election in his favor. If that’s fair game then, to use a phrase Trump likes to use in another context, we don’t have a country.

None of which means Victoria Nuland was right about anything, or that I would expect anything good to come of following her preferred course in handling Russia. But seriously — if you wanted to prove David “Unpatriotic Conservatives” Frum right after all, you could not do better than to continue to support Trump.

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The Presidency Is No Place For An Apprentice


My latest column for The Week is up, and it’s a look back and what we’ve learned about Trump since he clinched the nomination.

Trump, in his acceptance speech, touched not at all on the themes that animate social conservatives. There was no mention of the need to defend traditional religious belief, or the traditional family, or the unborn. There was no invocation of the place of the divine in American life at all. The party platform, on the other hand, is a reactionary document that is obsessed with these very issues, and that has lurched further to the right on them even as the country has moved the other way.

Similarly, the nominee has repeatedly hammered on the theme of wage stagnation, and the need to reverse the decline of manufacturing and the rise of finance in the American economy. But the GOP platform has virtually nothing to say about these issues, and on the convention day ostensibly devoted to putting America back to work, the speakers focused instead on the need to put the Democratic nominee in prison.

Or consider this. After picking Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate, Trump remained uncertain enough about his choice that his agonizing leaked to the press, while in person Trump has been unable to muster even the bare minimum of normal respect for the man he wants to put a heartbeat away from the presidency. But before making the offer to Pence, Trump’s own son reportedly advertised the position (to Ohio Gov. John Kasich) as the most powerful in the history of the vice presidency, with control over both domestic and foreign policy. (The Trump campaign now denies ever offering the VP slot to Kasich.)

On the one hand, Trump the nominee has staked out highly idiosyncratic territory for his campaign, leading his party in a new direction that thrillshis supporters and terrifies his detractors, even when they believe he is likely to lose. But on the other hand, Trump seems to be doing nothing to actually move the party, institutionally, in the direction he claims to be leading, or even to have an interest in articulating what that direction might be. And he seems exceptionally eager to hand off the job of figuring out what he would actually do to others — others that include very traditional orthodox Republican figures like his running mate.

This might give comfort to those Republicans who strongly oppose Trump’s deviations from party orthodoxy, but who see him as a vehicle, however imperfect, for getting back into power. But it shouldn’t. A Trump presidency is overwhelmingly likely to disappoint enthusiastic and reluctant supporters alike.

Trump appears to be operating on a model of the presidency that looks something like the role he played on The Apprentice. He will be the king, surrounded by courtiers who make proposals of various kinds, some of which get approved. When they don’t work out, he’ll ostentatiously banish them from court. So long as the courtiers are the ones making the suggestions for what to do, they will constrain the possible courses of action. But serving at the pleasure of the king they will have no ability to direct it. And they will be first in line for blame when and if the proposed policy goes wrong.

Scott McConnell, who’s got a much sunnier view of Trump than I have, might nonetheless agree.

Here’s the thing Trump fans need to reckon with that I don’t dwell on at length in the column. Say you feel – as I do – that some of what Trump is running on is important. For example, I have  come around, increasingly, to the view that we need to reassess our approach to trade. What’s Trump’s effect going to be on those causes?

So far, instead of moving the center in his direction, he’s moving his establishment opponents to stake out more extreme claims on the other side. When Clinton’s opponent was Bernie Sanders, she abandoned her previous support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Now that she’s facing Donald Trump, she’s chosen Tim Kaine as her running mate, who once said that opponents of free trade agreements have a “loser’s mentality.” The same dynamic is at work on immigration, Trump’s signature issue.

If he loses, the loss will temporarily discredit Trump’s heterodoxy. The challenge for those who support one or another of his views will be to rescue Trumpism from Trump, and to find a Reagan to Trump’s Goldwater – a task I think will be quite difficult since Trump, unlike Goldwater, is not actually building any kind of institutional edifice that will outlast him.

But if Trump wins, the situation could be even worse for those who believe in him, assuming I’m right about his temperamental unfitness for the job. One way it could be worse is if Trump is neutered in policy terms, and his administration is a relatively orthodox Republican one, just exceptionally incompetent. But it could also be worse if Trump tries to achieve some of his objectives.

Take foreign policy. Let’s say Trump means what he says about NATO. He tells the former Warsaw Pact members that America is no longer worried about the Russian threat, and will not commit to their defense if attacked. He tells Turkey that NATO’s new mission is to fight radical Islamist terrorism. And he tells everybody that if they don’t spend more on defense, we’re taking our marbles and going home. Being Trump, he says all of this in the most obnoxious possible way, on national television.

I think it’s safe to assume that none of this will go over well – but perhaps we don’t want it to go over well. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure we don’t want Russian-backed separatists in eastern Estonia declaring their independence, forcing us to choose between confronting Russia militarily or admitting the hollowness of our security guarantee. I’m pretty sure we don’t want Turkey calling Trump’s bluff and proclaiming that it has no place in an anti-Muslim alliance.

The point is that turning a ship as large as American foreign policy takes a while, and needs to be done carefully. Done poorly, it could lead to a rapid collapse of institutions that even if they have outlived their original purpose and need to be rethought, have nonetheless served that purpose exceptionally well, and are the cornerstone of the entire international order.

And the other point is that Trump’s blustery, impetuous approach to these matters is prompting people like me, who should be arguing against the Washington consensus, instead to argue that it’s too risky to break with that consensus, at least in the Trumpian manner.

I think Clinton’s argument from experience is, ultimately, a losing one. She has a lot of experience making bad decisions, and she doesn’t seem to have learned from them – and she seems never to consider the possibility that the consensus may be wrong, because it is based on false or obsolete premises. But Trump’s challenge only seems to be hardening that position, and if he wins, a disastrous Trump Presidency may bring that consensus back with a vengeance.

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Kirchick’s Coup Fantasies

I am reluctant to call attention to a James Kirchick piece, but this one is so outrageous that I really feel obliged to. Ostensibly, the piece is a warning that if Trump gets elected, there might be a military coup in the United States. No, really:

Americans viewing the recent failed coup attempt in Turkey as some exotic foreign news story — the latest, violent yet hardly unusual political development to occur in a region constantly beset by turmoil — should pause to consider that the prospect of similar instability would not be unfathomable in this country if Donald Trump were to win the presidency.

What evidence does he present for such an astonishing claim?

Here’s the list:

  • Trump frequently praises foreign dictators.
  • Paul Manafort prevented a roll-call vote at the convention that might have embarrassed Trump.
  • Language expressing support for Ukrainian democracy was removed from the party platform.
  • Trump has campaigned for our military to take actions that are clearly violations of domestic and international law.

Kirchick goes on to argue that if Trump did issue blatantly illegal orders, his generals might refuse to obey such orders — and Trump might fire them in response. And . . . I supposed we’re to infer that the military would then rise up in outrage at such treatment and oust President Trump, ending American democracy.

Look, there’s a very real case to be made that Trump is a danger to the Republic. He genuinely doesn’t care about political norms, international law, or even the constitution. He’s erratic and impulsive and narcissistic. He might very well issue illegal orders to violate international law — like the last Republican President did, and like the last Republican Presidential nominee advocated doing, only worse. There’s a reason I’m rooting for Hillary Clinton to utterly crush Donald Trump. I think he’d be a truly ruinous chief executive.

But there is essentially zero risk that any faction of the U.S. military will take it into its head to oust Trump from the presidency. Kirchick doesn’t even bother to outline a plausible scenario for such an eventuality. He jumps straight from “Trump is insufficiently opposed to Putin’s Ukrainian stooges” to “Trump will issue orders that will put American security in jeopardy” to “the U.S. military will have no choice but to step in to stop him, even if it means a coup.”

Kirchick isn’t really warning that this might happen. He’s fantasizing. He’s implying that, in his mind, a coup would be justified to eliminate the threat of Donald Trump.

The contrast with the overwhelming resistance by Turkey’s opposition parties to the coup against Erdogan speaks volumes.

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No Respect At All

I’ll have something to say soon enough about the coup in Turkey and other weighty matters, but for now, take the time to enjoy McKay Coppins’s revealing article about how Donald Trump came to run for President.

About 30 minutes into the debate, Kelly asked Trump to respond to a recent BuzzFeed News report about his position on immigration.

“First of all, BuzzFeed?” Trump said, waving an index finger in the air. “They were the ones that said under no circumstances will I run for president — and were they wrong.” My phone lit up with a frenzied flurry of tweets, texts, and emails, each one carrying variations of the same message: This is all your fault.

Trump was referring to a profile I’d written two years earlier in which I chronicled a couple of days spent inside the billionaire’s bubble and confidently concluded that his long-stated presidential aspirations were a sham. He had tweeted about me frequently in the weeks following its publication — often at odd hours, sometimes multiple times a day — denouncing me as a “dishonest slob” and “true garbage with no credibility.”Breitbart published an “EXCLUSIVE” with Trump and his employees claiming I’d boorishly harassed various women during my brief stay at his Palm Beach estate Mar-a-Lago. (“I don’t know how to say it — he was looking at me like I was yummy,” complained one hostess named “Bianka Pop.”) There were a lot of things about Trump’s wrathful, wounded reaction that seemed weird at the time, but in retrospect, the weirdest was that it never really ended; for two years, Trump continued to rant about how I’m a scumbag or a loser or “just another phony guy.”

Trump’s performative character assassination led to plenty of teasing from friends and colleagues about how I had inadvertently goaded Trump into running. But as his campaign gained traction, the tone started to curdle into something more…hostile. Once, after discussing Trump’s latest outrage on cable news, the host grumbled to me, “Won’t it be great when Donald Trump becomes president because you wrote a fucking BuzzFeed article daring him to run? I mean, won’t that be fucking fantastic?” I mentioned to former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett that Trump’s candidacy had me yearning for a new beat. “So, wait a second, you get all of us into this, and now you decide it’s beneath you?” he demanded. “No, you stay ‘til it’s fucking over. The whole thing. You stay here with the rest of us until it’s done.”

It’s not done yet. As Trump completed his conquest of the Republican Party this year, I contemplated my supposed role in the imminent fall of the republic — retracing my steps; poring over old notes, interviews, and biographies; talking to dozens of people. What had most struck me during my two days with Trump was his sad struggle to extract even an ounce of respect from a political establishment that plainly viewed him as a sideshow. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that he’d felt this way for virtually his entire life — face pressed up against the window, longing for an invitation, burning with resentment, plotting his revenge.

I had landed on a long and esteemed list of haters and losers — spanning decades, stretching from Wharton to Wall Street to the Oval Office — who have ridiculed him, rejected him, dismissed him, mocked him, sneered at him, humiliated him — and, now, propelled him all the way to the Republican presidential nomination, with just one hater left standing between him and the nuclear launch codes.

What have we done?

The article is marvelous, but of course it puts the emphasis in the wrong place. The question isn’t what ultimately motivated Trump to run for President, but what motivated a substantial plurality of the Republican party primary electorate to vote for him. Trump may be an exceptionally perfect vessel for the politics of resentment, but if the tide of resentment rises high enough it’ll lift (or, I suppose, fill) whatever vessel is available.

Anyway – read the whole thing. It’s great.

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RBG Earns Her Vaunted Notoriety

Dan Drezner on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s appallingly inappropriate comments on the election:

[B]ecause Ginsburg believes in speaking plainly, then let us return the favor: This was a remarkably stupid and egregious comment for a sitting Supreme Court justice to make on the record. Say what you will about Justices Antonin Scalia, who died in February, or Clarence Thomas, but they never weighed in on presidential politics quite like this. The closest example I can find is that in January 2004, during an election year, Scalia went on a hunting trip with Vice President Dick Cheney. That action alone got legal ethicists into a lather.

What Ginsburg did was way worse, though. Indeed, I can find no modern instance of a Supreme Court justice being so explicit about an election — and for good reason. As the Chicago Tribune noted in an editorial:

To say her public comments are unusual is like saying dancing cows are scarce. Supreme Court justices don’t — at least until now — take public stands on presidential or other elections. One reason is that they are barred from doing so by the federal code of judicial conduct, which states that as a general rule, judges shall not “publicly endorse or publicly oppose another candidate for public office.” They also aren’t allowed to make speeches on behalf of political organizations or give money to candidates. …

Nowhere is that impartiality more important than in the highest court in the land, which has the final word on a host of grave questions. For justices to descend into partisan election campaigns would undermine public faith in their willingness to assess each case strictly on its legal merits. It would also encourage justices to let their political biases affect, if not determine, their decisions.

Indeed. As my Post colleague and Volokh Conspiracy contributor Jonathan Adler writes, “For the record, I share many of her concerns about Trump, and will not support him for President under any circumstances, but these comments seem quite inappropriate for a sitting member of the federal judiciary.”

As I noted earlier this year, trust in the Supreme Court was bound to take a hit after the death of Scalia and the partisan deadlock over filling his seat. But if eroding trust was a slow-burning political fire, Ginsburg just poured gasoline on it. There are certain privileges that one sacrifices to be a sitting member of the federal judiciary and making explicitly partisan comments about presidential elections is one of those privileges.

I cannot see any possible defense of what Ginsburg did, given that she violated Canon 5 of the Code of Conduct for United States Judges. Supreme Court Justices are not strictly bound by that code, but they nonetheless act as exemplars for the rest of the judiciary, and this canon seems pretty important. She should repair the damage and apologize for her remarks as soon as possible. Otherwise, she bears almost as much responsibility as Trump for the slow-motion crisis in American democracy.

I concur completely. The best defense of Ginsburg’s behavior is that she is getting old and forgot herself, which is not exactly a good defense of the capacities of a sitting Justice. More likely, since she still seems pretty sharp to me, Ginsburg has been drawn into the orbit of those who think Trump’s success so far is already adequate evidence of the failure of democracy, and calls for an extraordinary response. But it’s still bizarre that she could think that her comments would be in any way helpful in that endeavor.

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