Comment Elsewhere: To @BurtLikko under “How to Fix a Broken Elephant: Prologue”

@Burt Likko

You write as though you have determined that the primary sin, the sin of sins, is “Othering.” So, of course, you have to turn your back on politics, since the defining political distinction or the distinction that defines politics remains “us” and “them,” “friend” and “enemy,” collective “self” and “other.”

The left-liberal notion is that politics is about “policy” for the good of all – “all people created equal” and so on – but no left-liberal [or any other] politics is able to address the good of all immediately, or to whatever extent it might it passes over into the apolitical or politically irrelevant: Even the further left Bernie Sanders is a protectionist, appealing to the narrowly defined self-interest of the victims of globalization (i.e., universalized economic liberalism), suppressing the extent to which benefit to “us” along such lines must come at cost to and against the evident will of unidentified “thems,” while the anti-othering social justice movement pursues a program of othering the otherers (mostly as “hating/fearing conservatives”), dividing the world up into those to whom such a paradox expresses the highest purposes and those to whom it demonstrates hypocrisy or lack of self-awareness.

As for the intellectual foundations of “conservatism” and the foundations or potential foundations of a “conservative” governing coalition, they are not necessarily the same thing, and reaching a shared understanding of the relationship (broadly, between theory and practice) will itself entail a complex discussion in which public narratives and sincerely and widely held presumptions may or may not diverge from sensible explanations, with the divergences thought to reflect on participants in different ways, with every possibly significant position factually and morally contestable, and with everyone determined to short circuit the process in a way that, more often than not unless invariably, will just happen to replicate the same self-interested friend-enemy distinctions (under whatever name) with which they began: Every other re-othered, just like we like it.


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2 comments on “Comment Elsewhere: To @BurtLikko under “How to Fix a Broken Elephant: Prologue”

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  1. Would you say that, based on your interpretation of “the political” as inherently othering, and the related view that it cannot thus inherently be bad to do so, the more realistic hope (maybe the only one) is to restrain such impulses? That is, to keep that Other sentiment from leading to oppression and slaughter?

    • Well, as we know, we can find an occasional voice in favor of oppression and slaughter, but for the most part “oppression” is another word for “bad or undesirable politics,” while “slaughter” implies pointless mass murder. So, you’ll receive overwhelming support, including from many people you despise, for the goal of less oppression and less slaughter.

      The architects of the Iraq War, for instance, certainly believed or certainly persuaded themselves that on balance they would be reducing oppression and slaughter. Almost every accused slaughterer-oppressor does (if self-conscious mass homicidal sadists exist, they may not often achieve political power). The accused oppressor-slaughterers’ main problem, in their minds, will have been convincing themselves and their subjects or citizens that even one life could or should be expended – or even one citizen asked to give his or her life or take someone else’s life. This ask is complicated by the fact that my giving my life (or moral life) to fix Other People’s Problems is not something you can ever adequately compensate me or my victims for materially. You can pay estimated lifetime earnings equivalent plus punitive damages to my family or a victim’s family, but you cannot bring me or my victim back to life.

      So, you have to convince me that the sacrifice is what we call “necessary,” that it preserves or advances “something” more important specifically to me than my life or, a different but related question, than the taking of another person’s life by me. In addition to believing in something other than a merely material compensation, I have to be willing to accept some degree of oppression, both against me and against some other person, and some certainty of slaughter, potentially including my own slaughter and the slaughter of those whom I might consider innocent as individuals.

      There is no way to avoid this question except by avoiding reflection on morality in relation to the taking and giving of lives altogether, in other words by turning one’s back on politics and in so doing on living a meaningful life: Even and especially the pacifist makes that calculation, willingly submitting himself or herself, and kith and kin, to oppression and slaughter rather than initiate it directly – perhaps in the hope and belief that doing so will lead to less oppression and slaughter in the end, and in the present comprehension of a higher moral good justifying one’s own personal sacrifice – or experience of oppression and slaughter and of permitting or refusing to intervene against other people’s oppression and slaughter.

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Trump actually congratulated Erdogan on the outcome. Trump apparently thought it was a good thing that, despite all the flaws in the process, a bare majority of Turkey’s citizens voted to strengthen their populist leader. I don’t think any other post-Cold War president would have congratulated a democratic ally that held a flawed referendum leading to a less democratic outcome. This is not that far off from Trump congratulating Putin on a successful referendum result in Crimea if that event had been held in 2017 rather than 2014.

Public disquiet and behind-the-scenes pressure on key illiberal allies is an imperfect policy position. It is still a heck of a lot more consistent with America’s core interests than congratulating allies on moving in an illiberal direction. In congratulating Erdogan, Trump did the latter.

For all the talk about Trump’s moderation, for all the talk about an Axis of Adults, it’s time that American foreign policy-watchers craving normality acknowledge three brute facts:

  1. Donald Trump is the president of the United States;
  2. Trump has little comprehension of how foreign policy actually works;
  3. The few instincts that Trump applies to foreign policy are antithetical to American values.
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He sensed that the public wanted relief from the burdens of global leadership without losing the thrill of nationalist self-assertion. America could cut back its investment in world order with no whiff of retreat. It would still boss others around, even bend them to its will...

There was, to be sure, one other candidate in the 2016 field who also tried to have it both ways—more activism and more retrenchment at the same time. This was, oddly enough, Hillary Clinton... Yet merely to recall Clinton’s hybrid foreign-policy platform is to see how pallid it was next to Trump’s. While she quibbled about the TPP (which few seemed to believe she was really against), her opponent ferociously denounced all trade agreements—those still being negotiated, like the TPP, and those, like NAFTA and China’s WTO membership, that had long been on the books. “Disasters” one and all, he said. For anyone genuinely angry about globalization, it was hard to see Clinton as a stronger champion than Trump. She was at a similar disadvantage trying to compete with Trump on toughness. His anti-terrorism policy—keep Muslims out of the country and bomb isis back to the Stone Age—was wild talk, barely thought through. But for anyone who really cared about hurting America’s enemies, it gave Trump more credibility than Clinton’s vague, muddled talk of “safe zones” ever gave her.

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As they war with the right, though, Trump and Kushner would gain no quarter from Democrats—unless Democrats were allowed to set the all the terms. This is Bannon’s central point. Democrats have no incentive to prop up Trump’s presidency for half-loaf compromises that many will suspect are contaminated with seeds of Trumpism. Trump can adopt or co-opt the Democrats’ infrastructure platform outright if he likes, but he can’t easily entice them to compromise with him, and he can’t entice House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to advance a trillion dollar direct-spending bill filled with environmental and labor protections that the GOP exists to oppose.

Which is just to say, Kushner wants Trump to chart a new course that leads to a substantive dead end for at least another 19 months. Bannon’s path, at least, preserves the hope of keeping his base consolidated through the legislative ebb. He can deregulate, scapegoat, and unburden law enforcement to turn his Herrenvolk fantasy into reality—all while keeping congressional investigators at bay.

There’s no real logical rebuttal to this, except to point to three months of chaos and humiliation as indicative of the futility of continuing to do things Bannon’s way. That is really an argument that Trump should get rid of both of his top advisers, but Trump is unlikely to grasp that in a contest between loyalists, both might deserve to lose. Family loyalty, and the beating his ego will take when the stories of his first 100 days are written, will pull him toward his son-in-law. And that’s when the real fun will begin.

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State of the Discussion

bob
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+ Wade, your last paragraph is crucial to your argument. Certainly it expresses economically the source of the weight of a country's foreign policy, and [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic
CK MacLeod
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Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ Not sure where you got the idea that I ever wrote “[President Trump] doesn’t know what he’s doing!!!!!!" - bob's idea for a possible rallying [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic
Wade McKenzie
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Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ The conversation that you and Bob were having at the time that I wrote my comment had everything to do with the recent missile strike [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic

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