Noah Millman

The Tragedy of James Comey

I will confess something: I can very easily imagine myself as James Comey. I remember, when I worked on Wall Street, developing the reputation of being one of those guys who wouldn’t just toe the line, but actually spoke his mind if something didn’t smell right, and had to be convinced. But I could be convinced. I worked within the system as it existed, for better and for worse.

I can’t quite imagine myself making it to Comey’s level in the Justice Department, but if I imagine that I suddenly found myself there, I can easily imagine myself, like Comey, running to John Ashcroft’s bedside to bolster his commitment not to rubber-stamp a dubious grant of surveillance authority. And I can also easily imagine myself splitting hairs to give my superiors at least some of the leeway they wanted to implement a regime of torture-based interrogations. I can easily envision that mix of profiles in courage and in coyness that constitute James Comey’s record in office.

And I can imagine myself being torn apart by the situation of having to investigate possible law-breaking, including possibly covering up that law-breaking, by a major party presidential candidate in an environment of hyper-partisanship.

All of which is by way of prelude to explain my latest column at The Week, about the tragedy of James Comey:

If Comey was trying to put his thumb on the scales for the Republicans, he could not have done so in a more ham-handed fashion. If he was trying to stay above the partisan fray, he could not have failed more spectacularly. He will likely be remembered more as a fool than a villain, the fellow who stumbling after an intruder with his candle in the dark, lit the drapes on fire and ultimately burned the house down.

But I see Comey as a tragic figure, in the classic sense: someone undone by a flaw that is inseparable from his virtues. His fall is a sign of just how corrupted by rabid partisanship our government has become. And if we don’t do something about that, James Comey won’t be the last honorable public servant who turns himself into exactly what he was trying to keep himself from becoming.

Read the whole thing there.

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Trump’s Leaky Ship Sails On

Read this piece in Politico about the firing of FBI Director James Comey:

President Donald Trump weighed firing his FBI director for more than a week. When he finally pulled the trigger Tuesday afternoon, he didn’t call James Comey. He sent his longtime private security guard to deliver the termination letter in a manila folder to FBI headquarters.

He had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.

Trump’s firing of the high-profile FBI director on the 110th day since taking office marked another sudden turn for an administration that has fired its acting attorney general, national security adviser and now its FBI director, who Trump had praised until recent weeks and even blew a kiss to during a January appearance.

The news stunned Comey, who saw his dismissal on TV while speaking inside the FBI office in Los Angeles. It startled all but the uppermost ring of White House advisers, who said grumbling about Comey hadn’t dominated their own morning senior staff meetings. Other top officials learned just before it happened and were unaware he was considering firing Comey. “Nobody really knew,” one senior White House official said. “Our phones all buzzed and people said, What?”

It sounds very much like Politico got people in the White House to say, flat out, that the firing was about quashing the Russia investigation. The most parsimonious assumption is that, in fact, the President fired his FBI director in an attempt to quash that investigation, and disloyal aides are trying to (a) protect themselves in the event of a Congressional investigation by preemptively saying that they had no idea this was coming, and (b) put Congress on the spot by making it abundantly clear that such an investigation is warranted. Is Congress really not going to do anything in response?

I suppose they might not. The Republican strategy so far seems to be to count on their voters either never believing their lying eyes, or on complete epistemic closure to prevent their voters from ever learning unpleasant news, or on being so convinced of the absolute evil of Team Blue that there is literally nothing that would make them change their mind about the lesser evil.

But consider the implications of the alternative assumption: that these anonymous aides and officials are exaggerating, confabulating or carefully communicating partial truths in order to maximally damage their boss. How on earth can a White House function in such an environment? When your staff is sufficiently disloyal that they are telling reporters that you are engaged in what amounts to obstruction of justice, how can you make policy of any kind?

I personally incline toward the parsimonious explanation. But for those who still want to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, I’m genuinely curious: even assuming you’re right, how much better is that really?

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Does Macron’s Victory Give Europe a Real Chance?

To take the optimistic case regarding Macron for a moment, though, I want to harken back to a column I wrote last year in the wake of Brexit. Back then, I wrote that Britain’s vote to leave had done Europe “an enormous favor, no matter whether you think “Europe” is a good or bad idea.” Why?

If you think it’s a bad idea, then Britain is about to prove that it is possible to leave and survive. The transition is going to be expensive — Britain will enter a recession in the short term, and the long-term transition may be even more painful than the short, particularly if London cannot retain its position as the financial capital of Europe. But if Britain wants to be a country rather than a city-state, it’s a transition it will have to make at some point. Merely by proving it can be done, Britain will give heart to any other state reconsidering rule from Brussels.

But if you think Europe is a good idea, then you must think it can be made to work. And the only way Europe can work is by becoming a deeper union. The euro can only function if Europe has a common fiscal policy. Europe can only wield diplomatic clout commensurate with its demographic and economic bulk if it has a common defense policy. And Britain was always going to remain the largest, strongest foot-dragger to further cessions of national sovereignty.

What does a “deeper” union mean?

“Deepen” does not necessarily mean becoming a highly centralized, unitary state, much less a homogeneous culture. The United States’ federal system reserves considerable power to the several states; Canada’s federal system reserves even more power to its provinces, as does Germany to its Länder and Switzerland to its cantons. There’s no reason why Europe could not go down a similar path.

To do so, however, its founding members must compromise their conflicting visions of what Europe is supposed to be. Germany is going to have to accept that it has an open-ended responsibility for the welfare of citizens of other European states. Not for the states themselves, much less their leaders — but for their citizens: Germans will have to come to see Greeks as more like Ossis than like Ausländer. And France is going to have to accept that a functional Europe is one in which France is just a large and powerful province rather than an empire of its own.

In other words, a “deeper” union doesn’t need to mean a more highly-regulated or centralized one. But it does mean having a central European government that is directly responsible for and accountable to a European citizenry, a European electorate. In the absence of such responsibility and such accountability, “Europe” becomes a means for the political class to do an end-run around the citizenry of the various European states, and that process is one of the main drivers of right-wing populism across Europe.

Now, with Macron in charge of France and Markel in charge of Germany, you have two emphatically liberal, capitalist, transnationalists in charge of Europe’s core states. Macron even celebrated his victory with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the European anthem, rather than the French anthem, “La Marseillaise.” If these two can’t work together on fixing the structural problems with the design of the E.U., then probably nobody can.

So there’s the counter case to my own case that things are only going to get worse. The advocates of Europe now have their best chance to make their imagined future a reality. They probably deserve a shot.

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In France, the Center Holds

Marine Le Pen significantly underperformed expectations on election day yesterday, winning only slightly more than half of the votes won by president-elect Emmanuel Macron, or slightly more than a third of the total. Polls only a week ago showed her getting just above 40%, though over the past few days it was clear that she was bleeding rather than gaining support. Nonetheless, I think a lot of the commentariat expected that some combination of higher-than-estimated abstentions (turnout was indeed sharply down from recent prior elections) and enthusiasm by Le Pen’s base would lead to at least a small error in the opposite direction — a Macron win, but not an overwhelming one. But his victory was indeed overwhelming.

Why did Le Pen underperform? I can think of several plausible reasons. Most broadly, I suspect that there is a negative Trump effect on right-wing populism in Europe, partly because Trump’s victory has energized the opposition to that populist surge while removing America as a necessary antagonist for European populists, and partly because Trump has been such an embarrassing failure already. In France specifically, I suspect that Le Pen’s euroskepticism was more of a double-edged sword than it was in Britain, and that there was real concern about Le Pen’s failure to articulate a new course. Tactically, I suspect that Mélenchon’s endorsement helped bring some of his supporters around, and the massive document dump on the eve of the second round likely hurt Le Pen badly and helped Macron by energizing his supporters.

So the center held, and advocates of the vitality of that center can reasonably rejoice. USA Today‘s editorial on Macron’s victory starts off on the expected note:

The French roundly rejected the isolationism and fear-mongering of populist French candidate Marine Le Pen in the presidential election Sunday, reembracing the European Union, the continent’s decades-old experiment in economic union, stability and peace borne out of the ashes of World War II.

For an America that engaged in two costly wars in the past century spawned by a divided Europe, that’s good news.

But as soon as you dig in to that very editorial, more ominous tones begin to sound. Macron does not yet have a parliamentary majority to support his program. He has a limited amount of time to demonstrate that he can make headway in reducing France’s persistently high unemployment. As the editorial says at one point: “while the messenger of French populism has suffered a defeat, the underlying concerns about globalization and Muslim immigration remain potent forces.”

This is ultimately the question. If Macron’s program has the answers to France’s problems, then his election is an extremely good thing. We should none of us be cavalier about tossing out arrangements that have anchored our politics for so long, and nobody should be sanguine about the rise of the populist right. Populism is a symptom of deep dysfunction in a political system.

But you can’t crow about the decisive defeat of a symptom. You can only be pleased when the disease itself goes into remission. And I remain very skeptical that Macron has anything resembling a cure in his toolbox — among other things because he has mis-diagnosed the disease.

Which is the theme of my “opposing view,” which appears on the same page:

The primary reason why Le Pen did as well as she did [twice as well as her party’s best prior performance] is the widespread and growing discontent with the future that France has been pursuing for the past generation, and which Macron’s campaign exemplified: a future of ever-closer European integration and ever-weaker bonds of solidarity uniting the people of France.

Questions of sovereignty and identity were central to both campaigns. And while a clear majority of French voters have rejected precipitous withdrawal from the European Union, the stigmatization of immigrants, and an open embrace of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the discontent with the French establishment consensus in all three areas is manifestly growing. Most fundamental is the urgent desire by French citizens simply for greater control over their individual and collective lives — a sense that they can choose their future, and not merely suffer it.

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The Marketplace of Ideas in the Age of Plutocracy

My review of Daniel Drezner’s new book, The Ideas Industry, is in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, but it’s readable on-line now. The book is “an account of how the marketplace of ideas, the metaphorical bazaar where academics and think tankers and pundits hawk their intellectual wares to policy makers, has changed over the past generation.”

As he tells it, three large-scale forces have remade the marketplace of ideas. The erosion of trust in prestigious institutions has weakened the position of both academia and the traditional journalistic perches of public intellectuals. The polarization of American politics has segmented that marketplace into distinct and separate niches. Most important, the dramatic growth in economic inequality has made wealthy individuals and corporations into the primary buyers, dominating the market.

It’s this last trend, Drezner says, that accounts for the transformation of a marketplace into an industry. In a marketplace, wares are traded among participants with diverse needs, but an industry produces to meet the specific demands of its customers. Whether it’s the predominance of economics over political science, the transformation of research institutions and the rise of private intelligence operations, or the phenomenon of the superstar intellectual — each of which gets a chapter in Drezner’s book — a common thread is the enormous financial incentives that now exist to cater to the intellectual tastes and prejudices of modern wealth.

Read the whole thing there.

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Can the Left Respond to Right-Wing Populism?

Jeff Spross has an excellent column at The Week this morning about the sinking feeling he has watching Emmanuel Macron, notwithstanding his strong lead at the polls:

After a number of other candidates were scuttled by the first round of the vote, there’s been enormous pressure for the various voting factions in France to unite against Le Pen. But the case for opposing her rests far more on visceral horror at her xenophobic stances than on any substantive alternative vision. When the two candidates sat down for a recent debate, New York Times reporter Rachel Donadio tweeted that “Le Pen is casting herself as a protector of French people worried about work, health care. Macron [is] casting himself as fact-checker-in-chief.”

This whole dynamic should sound eerily familiar to anyone who watched the showdown between Clinton and Trump. Once again, the Western world will try to halt the rising forces of right-wing nationalism with another ambassador of cosmopolitan finance capitalism.

Granted, polling shows Macron with a solid lead for the final round of the election. But it’s hard to escape the sickening feeling that we’re witnessing the “farce” portion of history’s cycle. . . .

What’s most discouraging is the depressingly familiar way Macron treats the forces of global capitalism as some natural disaster we all have to live with. When a Whirlpool factory shut down in his hometown, Macron responded with: “What will I do? I’ll go in a truck and say, ‘With me, it won’t close?’ We know that it’s not true.”

Say what you will about Le Pen, she is at least willing to argue forthrightly for blowing up the whole system and creating something new. “I want to destroy the EU,” she said in a 2014 interview. “The EU is deeply harmful, it is an anti-democratic monster.” She rails against job loss and casts herself as the defender of the working class. In the blue-collar areas of France, where deindustrialization has hit French workers the hardest, Le Pen outpaces Macron by a considerable margin.

It’s both perverse and tragic that Le Pen’s willingness to think big comes coupled with the populist right’s paranoia towards Islam, its zero-sum hostility to immigrants, and its toxic cultural reaction. But it should surprise no one who is a student of human nature and history. More to the point, the Clintons and Obamas and Macrons of the world have worked very hard to present global finance capitalism and the cosmopolitan values of tolerance and multiculturalism as a package deal. Voters are taking them at their word.

Spross’s thin hope is that Macron will prove wily enough to coopt the strongest arguments of the populist left and right:

Despite his pro-European rhetoric, Macron has recommended genuinely ambitious reforms to the eurozone’s monetary and financial structure — ones that really would push back at much of the economic destruction the currency union has wreaked. Recently, he’s even flirted with parts of Le Pen’s playbook, suggesting that threatening to withdraw France from the EU might be necessary to force those changes.

By all accounts, Macron is a slippery politician and a privileged opportunist. But these might not be entirely bad things. If he concludes that his own political glory requires it, he might yet betray his class and throw in with the populists. It does occasionally happen, as America’s own Franklin Roosevelt demonstrated. Should he go that route, Macron would give the justified fury of the Western working class a far more humane outlet.

But to pull off the transformation, Macron will have to abandon the road that Obama, Clinton, Cameron, and the rest have paved for him. I’m not holding my breath.

But why does the liberal center-left keep framing the contest this way in the first place? That’s the subject of my own column at The Week today:

It’s not that the liberal left has no policy response to today’s economic or political challenges. Indeed, as the debate between Macron and Le Pen illustrated well, right-wing populists are the ones who are more comfortable with slogans and postures than with policy prescriptions, and that is reason enough for plenty of voters to be nervous about voting for them.

But something deeper than policy is being contested, over and over again, in Britain, in America, and now in France. What’s being contested is the nature of politics itself. And that’s the debate the liberal left is increasingly losing.

In our common liberal understanding of the roots of politics, the government rules with the consent of the governed. Representative systems of government acknowledge that the people cannot rule directly, both because direct democracy is impractically cumbersome and because they lack the expertise necessary to make informed decisions. But the people’s consent is still essential. And for the people to consent, there has to be a people — a political community that sees itself as a community.

A political community does not have to be defined in ethnic terms. The United States is not — and never has been, not even during the darkest era of official white supremacy. For that matter, France is not — historically, it has stood out among European nations for its relatively large foreign-born population, and has prided itself on a culture that people from all over Europe, and even beyond, might want to adopt it. But for a political community to exist, its members must at least acknowledge its existence. And that implies some sense of its boundaries.

This process of self-definition is increasingly anathema to liberal parties. Ostensibly, the reason is fear of being exclusionary — even racist. To define the political community in any way beyond the purely formal — those who happen to live in a particular territory — is to risk implying a preference for one group over another.

But why should this be so? As an inveterate skeptic of purely ideological reasons why people do things, I look for a sociological one:

The leadership of center-left and liberal parties is increasingly the product of formally meritocratic institutions: universities, government, banks, and other corporations. And their strongest base of support comes from citizens of a similar background, including the professional classes. Success within the world of these institutions often depends on performance metrics as well as formal qualifications and self-promotion — however imperfectly meritocratic they are, there is some basis to their claims to promote the “best” individuals. They do not, however, depend on evidence of political leadership as democracies have traditionally understood it. They do not depend on a deep investment in or ability to speak to a particular political community. And that shows in the way they do speak, whether it’s Hillary Clinton’s self-directed “I’m With Her” campaign slogan or Emmanuel Macron’s statement that there is no such thing as French culture.

These impolitic slips aren’t accidents. People who rose through these systems and these institutions have a vested interest in defining politics in technocratic terms, in suggesting that the purpose of politics is to find the “best” people to make the “best” policy decisions. If that’s what politics is, then community has little to do with political decision-making. Indeed, democracy itself can come to seem more a problem than a solution — if the people can’t bring themselves to make the right decision, then maybe more and more decisions need to be taken out of their hands. The European Union was arguably designed with that very notion consciously in mind.

But “best” is not an objective attribute of either a person or a policy. Just as an organism can only be “fit” in evolutionary terms with respect to its environment, a policy can only be “best” for achieving a particular set of ends for a particular group of people. To convince that particular group of people to trust that you know what is “best,” you first have to assure them that you know they are a particular group of people. Then you have to convince them that you have heard what they are saying: what set of ends most concern them. In other words, you have to treat them as a political community.

The reactionary populist right is rising fundamentally because the old Thatcherite/Reaganite right failed to achieve the most urgent ends for Western electorates, ends related to control: over their economic future, over their personal security, over their common culture. An older iteration of the liberal left would have had little trouble capitalizing on this failure. But it would have had the luxury of presuming the existence of a common culture, and could readily speak that common language.

As that commonality has become fragile and contested, the liberal left is increasingly tempted to operate as if the idea of political community were itself obsolete, and politics is just about choosing the best person to navigate the future. But by implicitly or explicitly dismissing the importance of a political community, the liberal left, far from defining politics in a way that anoints them the obvious and natural leaders of society, are defining themselves in a way that drives the electorate ever further into the arms of their populist foes.

Unfair though it undoubtedly seems to their own political base, today’s liberal left needs to do much more than demonstrate competence or right-thinking to win back popular trust. Contrary to their deepest impulses, they need to demonstrate that they don’t think they’re any better than anybody else.

Read both Spross’s column and my column there.

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Going Over the Top One More Time

ca. 1914-1918, France — A company of Canadian soldiers go “over the top” from a World War I trench. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Let me see if I can summarize what amounts to the official explanation the GOP is giving for why they are pushing this health care bill. (I call it the official explanation because Chris Cillizza credits his analysis entirely to GOP members and staffers he talked to, so this is presumably the message they want to get out.) If I understand correctly, it boils down to this:

  1. We promised that we would do something about health care.
  2. This is something.

Comparisons to the Democratic vote on cap and trade are not at all reasonable. The Democratic leadership actually wanted to pass that bill; the party’s base actually supported it; and I would maintain that passing it in the House when they did was indeed the most likely path to getting it enacted into law. “Most-likely” turned out not to be nearly likely enough — and because of that, the vote wound up hurting the Democrats badly in 2010. That vote was only one of many reasons why the Democratic majority proved to be far less-durable than some thought at the time, a subject that will and should continue to be debated. But while Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s strategy was in retrospect a bad one, it was a strategy aimed at a concrete and desired goal.

That is not at all true of the GOP’s health care bill. By their own repeated admission, the GOP leadership has no actual policy goal of any kind. They promised something. They have to deliver something — even if that something is wildly unpopular, satisfies nobody, and bears almost no relation to what they originally promised.

Ross Douthat has been having fun comparing the GOP leadership to Aguirre in the Werner Herzog film with respect to the leadership’s call to “burn the ships” to prevent defection. But his two most telling tweets are these:

With those tweets in mind, I have an ominous analogy to make.

The Democrats and Republicans have been engaged in brutal trench warfare for coming on a generation now. I have this sinking feeling that in a couple of years that war will be over, not because the Democrats finally win, but because the Republican side collapses into fratricide like the Russian army in 1917. [Whoops! Previously said 1918; my error]

In this analogy, Trump — continuing to pursue the ruinous politics of the discredited prior Republican regime — is bizarrely cast as the GOP’s Kerensky.

And I dread to contemplate what comes next.

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Douthat, Le Pen, Again

Ross Douthat has a follow-up to his piece from Sunday, and it is excellent:

In Europe as in the United States, recent trends in culture and economics have elevated an educated upper class while separating it, geographically and ideologically and in every other way, from a declining and fragmenting working class. In Europe as in the United States, a growing immigrant population serves this upper class while seeming to compete with downscale natives for jobs, housing and social benefits. In Europe as in the United States, the center-left coalition has become a kind of patronage arrangement between the multicultural meritocracy and minority groups both new and old, while the white working class drifts rightward and votes for Brexit, Trump and now Le Pen.

The best piece to read on the French version of this phenomenon comes from Chris Caldwell in City Journal, in which he discusses the work of the French geographer and sociologist Christophe Guilluy, who portrays his nation as increasingly “an ‘American’ society like any other, unequal and multicultural.”

In Guilluy’s account, the tensions between Trumpland and liberal America find their mirror in the tensions between the French republic’s thriving regions and the stagnation and disappointment of “la France périphérique” — a mix of rural areas and cities whose industries have suffered under globalization, and whose inhabitants feel disdained and ignored by the metropoles. And the ethnic tensions that Trump has exploited are mirrored as well, albeit with distinctively French twists — like the role of the vast suburban housing projects, built in the postwar era for a largely native working class and now contested between natives and immigrants. (Caldwell writes: “Guilluy speaks of a ‘battle of the eyes’ fought in the lobbies of apartment buildings across France every day, in which one person or the other — the ethnic Frenchman or the immigrant’s son — will drop his gaze to the floor first.”)

So far, so similar. But as counterintuitive as it may seem — after all, we elected Trump and they have not — in many ways these problems are worse in Europe, part of a systemic crisis that’s more serious than our own.

They’re worse because Europe is stuck with a horribly flawed experiment in political economy, a common currency without a common fiscal policy or a central political authority capable of claiming real legitimacy. The damage that this combination has done to the economies of Southern Europe, in particular, is striking and severe — years of elevated unemployment and stagnation, all of it imposed without democratic accountability by a mostly Northern European caste of bankers and politicians.

They’re worse because Europe has had sub-replacement fertility for much longer than the United States (a trend worsened, there as here, by the Great Recession), which drags on economic growth, increases fiscal burdens, heightens social anomie and makes mass immigration seem more culturally threatening to natives even as it seems more desirable to technocrats.

They’re worse because Europe is a continent of ethno-states without a strong assimilative tradition, and it’s now attempting to integrate an immigrant population that differs from its natives more dramatically — in religion, culture, education, mores — than the immigrant population differs from natives in the United States. And more, part of this immigrant population is tempted by jihadist ideologies that flourish far more easily on European than on American soil, and is linked to neighboring regions whose populations are growing fast enough to promise truly revolutionary migration rates should Europe let them come.

Finally, they’re worse because European governance has a greater democracy deficit than the United States, and because the European ruling class already relies more than its American counterpart on illiberal methods — restrictions on speech that would be the envy of our campus commisars, counterterrorism methods that would make Jeff Sessions blush, even the spread of “voluntary” euthanasia as a solution to age and illness and unhappiness — to maintain the continental peace.

This is a tangle of problems that no single statesman or party, however brilliant, is likely to cut through; they can be only managed, not resolved. But much of elite European politics seems to be organized around the premise that they are really problems only because they might lead to an extremist party taking power. So the important thing is to concentrate every effort on delegitimizing and defeating and excluding critics (be they right wing or, as in many Mediterranean countries, far left) rather than solving the problems that the outsiders often quite accurately identify.

This strategy partially succeeded in Greece, but it failed with Brexit. It should succeed in defeating Le Pen, but it has failed to prevent Poland and Hungary from turning to parties of the populist right.

But even — maybe especially — if it were comprehensively successful, it would still deserve to be discarded, because it represents a dereliction of duty, a refusal to stare actual failure in its face.

Ideally, it would be discarded first by existing parties of the center-right, which would adapt the populist critique and implement an agenda purged of crankishness and bigotry: This seems to be what Theresa May is trying to do in Britain, and I wish her well.

But elsewhere right-of-center parties are either breaking down or simply sticking to the same old playbook, leaving populists as the most viable alternative to the status quo. And the policy alternative that the right-wing populists often offer — hard limits on immigration, new financial support for families, a re-emphasis on national sovereignty, the unwinding of the euro — is in some ways less extreme than the open-borders and onward-to-federalism fantasies still nursed by the elite, and more directly responsive to the elite program’s widespread failure. (It is also considerably more coherent than the right-wing populism of Donald Trump.)

I would place the emphasis in somewhat different places than Douthat does. France has actually done an excellent job historically of assimilating immigrant groups — in part because, historically, it had an extremely strong sense of itself as a culture, such that immigrants actively wanted to assimilate to it. And I am personally skeptical that there is anything distinctly unassimilable about French Islam any more than French Judaism — rather, at this moment in history the house of Islam is going through a collective civilizational nervous breakdown. But I agree strongly with him about the common importance of extremely troubling economic trends, and the distinctive importance of the demographic position of Europe (shrinking as neighboring Africa and the Middle East burgeon) and especially the democratic deficit of European institutions.

But I strongly endorse his point about the failure of the parties of the European center-right to effectively address these questions, and would add only that there is no reason to limit that critique to the center-right. The center-left equally needs to be responsive to the distinctive demands of the moment — and if they are unable to do so, that is equally worthy of vigorous rebuke.

And I think the concluding section of his piece is especially worth the attention of self-styled guardians of the liberal center:

It may be that Le Pen is still too much like her father, or too much like the anti-Islam monomaniac Geert Wilders or the bumptious Nigel Farage or even Trump himself, to be entrusted with the leadership of an important Western power. And if you read some of the stinging responses to my column — for a relatively kind example, I recommend Yascha Mounk’s piece for Slate — you will find this case eloquently made.

But I still think it’s generally made in a way that doesn’t quite reckon with the scale of Europe’s problems, and the wider political environment in which parties like the National Front exist.

I completely agree, for instance, with Mounk’s critique of Le Pen’s secularism-on-steroids approach to public religiosity, which would try to suppress Islamic identity (and Jewish identity) in various ways, from bans on head scarves to rules against kosher and halal slaughter. I think that France would be much better served by a combination of reduced immigration and the kind of accommodations to its Muslim citizens that the Catholic French philosopher Pierre Manent has proposed, in which secularism gives ground to religious pluralism even as it firmly demands certain forms of assimilation.

I also agree with Mounk that their authoritarian inclinations and ugly historical roots are good reasons to fear what far-right parties might do with real power.

But from my perspective — as, yes, a religious conservative, and therefore someone already far outside the official European mainstream — the evils of right-populism are not some wild outlier in an otherwise harmonious and liberal Europe. They are instead dangers to be weighed against the myriad evils of the status quo.

To pluck some examples: It was not the populist right but the Social Democrats that recently banned halal and kosher butchering in Denmark, on the grounds that “animal rights come before religion.” It is not horrible fascists but high-minded progressives who are offering euthanasia to depressives and alcoholics and pressing religious institutions to go along. It is not nativism but Islamism that is driving Jews to flee from France.

Above all, perhaps — it is not right-wing authoritarians but the great and good of Brussels and Berlin who have shown consistent contempt for the popular will, for democratic self-government and for the interests of weaker countries in their union.

During an earlier spasm of European populism, the rebellion over the terms that Eurocrats imposed upon a supine and bankrupt Greece, I wrote a column called “Sympathy for the Radical Left,” in which I talked about how it was understandable that Greeks had cast ballots for the radical-front party Syriza — since that seemed like the only plausible way to assert their sovereignty and resist the misgovernment of the Continent’s elite.

The logic of that column is the same basic logic that leads me to at least entertain the case for Le Pen. The European Union has systemic problems that its existing leadership cannot or will not solve. Rebellion in such a context may not be wise; it will always risk worse evils. But it is understandable, and at some point it might become desirable as well.

It should be manifest that France — and America — desperately need an authentically liberal souverainiste and solidariste political persuasion to combat the forces of populism and nationalism on their own terrain. Instead, the center-left seems increasingly to believe that such a persuasion is a contradiction in terms. How badly will they have to lose before they change their minds?

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McCarthy on Le Pen

Marine Le Pen (Frederic Legrand – COMEO /

TAC editor-at large Daniel McCarthy warns nationalists and right-wing populists to stay away from Le Pen:

Ross Douthat and Noah Millman are right: Marine Le Pen stands for several policies that France should take seriously. But that’s why nationalists on the French right should do everything in their power to make sure she loses in a landslide in the presidential run-off on May 7. For as long as Le Pen and the National Front are the faces of right-wing populism in France, controlling immigration and opposing the EU — both worthy goals — will be lost causes.

Douthat ignited controversy over the weekend with a column whose headline asked, “Is there a case for Le Pen?” (Here at The Week, Millman asked a similar question: “Why not Le Pen?“) Yet the case Douthat made was arguably less for her — still less her party — than for a French right that’s up to the task of confronting globalization. And Douthat was quite wrong about one thing, at least: the notion that Le Pen is ready to govern. For all her attempts to reform her image, as well the National Front’s, she is still every inch a Le Pen, and the National Front is the ethnically chauvinist, basically anti-Dreyfusard party it always was.

True, National Front’s immigration policy has softened over the years, beginning even before Marine Le Pen took over. The National Front no longer calls for the repatriation of legal immigrants, for example. But it’s hard to believe Le Pen will be an effective force for encouraging Muslims to assimilate when there are still those in her party who don’t think the Jews of France have ever been French enough.

Stepping down as the National Front’s leader, temporarily, as she heads into the second round of the presidential election is not going to fool anyone into believing that Le Pen stands above party. It may, perhaps, ease ever so slightly the consciences of those on the right — or even anti-globalist left — who told themselves they’d never vote for the National Front. Yet the move is most significant for illustrating just how profoundly toxic and unelectable the National Front remains. Its name is poison to the populist causes it purports to champion. And so is Le Pen’s, ultimately. With or without the party label, she’s not headed to the Élysée Palace.

Contrast McCarthy’s case for Trump in October of 2016:

The conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, responding to the list [of pro-Trump intellectuals], correctly characterised the view of many of the signatories that ‘Trump is correct on particular issues (immigration, foreign policy, the importance of the nation-state) where the bipartisan consensus is often wrong, and his candidacy is a chance to vote against an elite worldview that desperately needs to be chastened and rebuked.’ But Douthat insists that however valid some of those concerns may be, the Donald is temperamentally unsuited to the White House. ‘Trump’s zest for self-sabotage, his wild swings, his inability to delegate or take advice, are not mere flaws; they are defining characteristics.’

And yet Trump has succeeded not just in one field but in many — in property, in television and now in politics, by winning the Republican nomination against well-funded rivals who had the support of the establishment right. Barack Obama won the White House in 2008 by promising ‘hope and change’. Trump — so temperamentally unlike every other recent Republican and Democratic nominee — promises to be a much greater force for change. Already he has changed the Republican party and the conservative movement, re-opening essential questions of foreign policy, immigration and the needs of the American workforce.

This is why I support him and why I signed on to ‘Scholars and Writers for America’. If President Trump does keep out of wars like the one the last Republican president started in Iraq, if he limits immigration and helps restore the US labour force to prosperity, he will have done what no other Republican or Democrat could do. On the other hand, should he live down to the worst expectations — getting into wars like Iraq to, as he puts it, ‘seize the oil’, or inflaming racial tensions at home — I have no doubt that he would be even more effectively opposed in his folly than George W. Bush was. The anti-war and civil-libertarian left, which has been conspicuously silent in the Obama years, would roar back to life.

The opposite would be true with President Hillary Clinton: in advancing globalist economics and pushing a foreign policy of interventionism and nation-building, she would have the support of many Republicans in Congress — and of Acela conservatives in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post. She will reduce the left to sycophancy and make accomplices of the right’s ‘wets’. (Or ‘squishes’, as we call them here.) Whether Trump succeeds or fails as a president, he will force American politics to make a choice between globalism and the nation. With Clinton there will be no choice, only more of the same disastrous policies we have seen under both of the last two presidents. With Clinton, there is neither hope nor change.

McCarthy’s case against Le Pen amounts to: she and her party are unfit to govern; if she loses narrowly, then her party will become the dominant force of right-wing opposition, which will discredit her important ideas. Better for her to lose badly, and thereby give the other, more-worthy right-wing parties an opportunity to pick up the torch.

His case for Trump is that his important ideas need to be vindicated by the strongest possible showing; if he wins the system will be forced to reckon with those ideas, whereas his opponent will vindicate the status quo once and for all; his fitness to govern remains to be determined; and if he proves unfit the system will check him.

It’s possible that the stark contrast in assessments boils down to an appreciation of the differences between the French and American systems, or to a belief that Trump pretended to harbor an ethnic animus that was insincere, while Le Pen is trying to soften a more deeply-held set of biases.

But it sounds to me like the big difference from McCarthy’s perspective is that Trump captured a major American political party with diverse roots, while a strong Le Pen would potentially bring a host of new voters into the FN’s camp. In other words, McCarthy believed that Trump would change the GOP in ways that he wanted the GOP changed, and that the GOP would change Trump in the way that he wanted Trump changed, while he believes that Le Pen and any voters she brings in will fail to change the FN in any material way, while the FN may capture the loyalty of enough voters on the right to change them without managing to ever constitute a majority. And I’m not sure why he thinks that. I’m even less sure why he didn’t consider the possibility that a failed Trump presidency would radically discredit his distinctive ideas in the same way that association with Le Pen would.

My bottom line remains where it was: I opposed Trump from the beginning because he was Trump, but I recognized from the beginning that he was making a distinctive argument that needed to be addressed, on his terms, by either his primary opponents or by Clinton, or he might well win. It wasn’t and he did, and here we are. I don’t want to see the FN win either; once again, I want the mainstream candidate to wake up and recognize the distinctive argument that needs to be addressed, and to address it. But I’m more sanguine about Le Pen in the Élysée than I was with prospect of Trump in the White House, partly because of what I see as their differences in character and partly because France is not America.

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The Unspeakable Horror of the Literary Life: Internet Edition

Michael Brendan Dougherty has a truly wonderful final column up at The Week, one that makes me especially regretful that he’ll be moving on.

Try to pinpoint the last time you took a purposeless walk through the late spring breeze, when there was no itch in your hand to reach for a mobile device, and you felt like the wind and sky around you had nothing to disclose to you other than the vast and mysteriously sympathy of existence itself. Was it 2007? Or as far back as 1997? Does just asking the question make you feel ill?

Do you lie awake in bed more often these days, unable to sleep, scrolling through Facebook or Twitter on your phone, trying to ignore signs of stress? Perhaps a faint taste of acid in your mouth? Do you have a gnawing fear that dark alliances are forming among your countrymen and conspiring against you, and everyone you like and (for good measure) everyone like you? Does it make you want to spend more money, or write yourself more reminders to do “self-care?” Maybe you suspect that if anyone else cares about your self it is only to notice that deep down you’re just as much of a hateful loser as they are?

Well, me too. Sometimes. Like the mental-health professional worth paying, I can tell you that what you’re feeling isn’t your fault. But unlike them, I think what you’re feeling might be my fault.

You see, I’m paid to write about politics and culture on the internet.

In a very perceptive essay, Will Rahn argued that everybody in America thinks they are losing. Liberals look out on the world and see the Democrats defeated and driven to the edge of politics. Conservatives look out on the world and see a Republican Party that can win elections but can’t change the culture. “No matter where we stand ideologically, everyone in the mainstream gets the sense that we’ve somehow already lost, that some past battle has already decided the long war’s outcome in our opponents’ favor,” Rahn writes.

There are any number of reasons why people feel this way, historical and political. But one of the main reasons they feel like this is because of the internet, particularly social media’s effect on the way news is created and delivered to you. And how all of this has warped the experience of those who have lived through these social changes. It isn’t just about politics either, but almost every dimension of human experience. Do you love architecture? Someone just built a monstrosity next to a building you loved. Click here. Do you adore products by Apple? Well, they’re screwing them up. Click here. Did you just feel that unnamable, almost unmentionable surge of gratitude for all the people you’ve known in life and all the kindnesses their presence brought to you? Click here and see that most of them have contemptibly dumb opinions about everything.

The internet doesn’t coddle you in a comforting information bubble. It imprisons you in an information cell and closes the walls in on you by a few microns every day. It works with your friends and the major media on the outside to make a study of your worst suspicions about the world and the society you live in. Then it finds the living embodiments of these fears and turns them into your cell mates. And good heavens it is efficient.

So what can one do?

I’d recommend the Luddite solution. But I probably can’t convince anyone to smash their screens for good. Not even myself. Individual acts of rebellion might be cathartic but not useful. We probably can’t change the way the world feels to us now. The night sky that seemed to transmit nothing to us but sympathy back in 1997 is now conveying this ugly, boring, contemptible “content” to your device at this very moment. It is hiding all of that anxiety beneath just enough funny videos of people being injured, or pictures of someone’s baby or cat, or pleasant time lapses of cooking that you keep coming back to it. If you gave up your device, your friends would still approach you with theirs.

“Did you see this?” they ask. “Do I want to?” you respond with an expectant smile. But internally your mind repeats it with a sigh. “No, really, do I want to?”

Everyone participates in the culture, even if they don’t want to participate. In his book, Beyond Consolation, the Irish writer John Waters spoke about the omnipresence of this culture:

Any attempt to make visible the culture is partly doomed to failure, because it moves and shifts all the time, being governed by the desires and prejudices and terrors of all its members and what they want each other and the world in general to believe about them. I give my tithe to the culture every living moment, feeding into it what I want it to know about me, what I would like it to relate about me, but also much that I do not intend to betray. I blush, an involuntary function, and the culture understands this far more than anything I have said. And the same is true of everyone else, in their relationships with the culture, so the result is something we cannot even begin to describe but at best can acquire an intuitive sense of. [Beyond Consolation]

I pay my tithes, too. If this is a culture of disconnection, anxiety, and flashes of blinding hatred, I must have fed into it somehow. Maybe more so, because I try to describe it and tame it with my words. I don’t know how to get us through it, that feeling of losing and precarity that stalks us on the internet.

But I can grant you permission to stop consuming “content” wherever possible. Just resist its pull. Stop reading my column if you must. After all, this is how you got Trump. Thanks Obama. Over and out.

I have absolutely no intention of stopping reading him — but I do hope he continues in this wonderfully self-reflective vein as he transitions to a new job producing content for a magazine with far more formal ideological and partisan commitments.

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