Devoted and Selfless Consecration

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To mark the anniversary of the death of a veteran, the United States Government sends out a framed “certificate” like the one pictured above.

My father was proud of his service, but he was not a hero decorated for valor or a high-ranking officer, his experience of combat was limited (quite more than enough at that, he would say), and, more to the point, the war in which he fought was won by a self-consciously democratic nation: No reason why this later commemorative message should be anything other than “government issue”: That it makes a good first impression and brings back fond memories of Dad is good enough for us, anyway. So what if they happened to spelled our family name wrong, without capitalizing the “L” in MacLeod? “MacLeod” may be the most common of Scottish names, but the USG is the USG. If the Nazis had won, maybe their commemorations would have been perfect, but they didn’t win.

The signature stands out, and Dad in his last years may have been Obama-deranged enough to dislike the certificate on that basis alone. In his earlier years, I believe he would have been more accepting. The ink seems a bit thick, and I will assume until and unless informed otherwise that it was done by “autopen.”

The most interesting thing to me about the document is, however, its sacralized language, not its production values. It recognizes “devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country.” The negotiation of plural and singular from the United States which “honors” to the “nation” that awards for service to “our country,” before finally returning to the United States, reflects a familiar and very American problematic. In short, it’s not entirely clear who or what is doing the awarding, but each of the various named collective entities seems to represent something slightly different, almost a different identity or sense of identity or mood. The two sentences and signature together amount to a cloud of patriotic signifiers whose combined import is to be intuited rather than processed rationally.

Yet if we do not know exactly who or what is awarding the certificate on behalf of exactly whom or what, or what for that matter the certificate certifies, exactitude may not be available to us: After all we are dealing with something rather mysterious, with a “consecration.” The word and its variants are rarely used or seen other than in relation to Lincoln, but there is one at the center of this document. The undebatable assertion is that the citizen soldier – the conscript – or his service, or his “self” through his “devotion,” belongs or came to belong to the realm of sacred things, to facts of the nation or country that are more than merely political.

The sacred essence of the American state is not a common topic of discussion, but the state or nation or country itself, or we ourselves, on behalf of itself or on behalf of ourselves, deems or deem it the proper topic in relation to the final questions.


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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

+ 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
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
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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