It was December 14 in Paris many years ago, cold and dark at dawn, followed by heavy rain all day – an odd day – after staying up all night watching CNN-International in the hotel room. Somewhere in the middle of the night there was Al Gore on the screen, conceding the presidential election to George Bush.
So that was that. And a few hours later, across the street at the Café Bonaparte, it was that French breakfast thing – lots of black coffee and smoking the pipe, and leafing through Libération and Le Figaro and Le Monde, trying to get a sense of what people made of the whole thing – and there was that dark old church next door, where Descartes is buried. Yeah, think deep thoughts.
They didn’t come. American politics seemed absurd from a distance – but two weeks alone in Paris in early December each year, far from Los Angeles, can clear your head. Walking the rainy December streets, with the pipe, is fine, in a Hemingway sort of way – and after all, he wrote those first stories, about Upper Michigan, in Paris. Fitzgerald wrote about the essence of America – the oddly driven Jay Gatsby in his mansion on Long Island – in Paris and down in Antibes. Sometimes things are clearer when seen from a distance.
That’s all in the past now – old men stay at home – but now, in another absurd year in American politics, there are ways to find that distance that clarifies. Read the foreign press – all of it now a click away – or simply read this from Alex Massie:
If you think millions of Americans are terrified by the looming prospect of Donald Trump securing the Republican presidential nomination, you should see what we Brits think of him. Many of us – and countless millions of other Europeans – are wondering, not always politely, if the United States has succumbed to a kind of mass outbreak of madness.
Prime Minister David Cameron – Trump’s would-be partner in the special relationship, and a conservative – considers Trump “divisive, stupid and wrong.” George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, decries Trump’s “nonsense.” Not to be outdone, London Mayor Boris Johnson recently noted, “The only reason I wouldn’t want to go to some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump.” It was perhaps Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling who put it best when she said that, compared with Trump, “Voldemort was nowhere near as bad.” At least 500,000 other Brits appear to agree: In response to Trump’s call to ban any Muslim from entering the United States, they signed a petition calling to ban Trump from Britain.
That went nowhere, but there’s worry:
The choosing time is almost upon you, and you still – I am afraid there is no soft way of saying this – appear to be out of your minds.
Of course, snake-oil peddlers and two-bit hucksters have a long and dishonorable history in American affairs, and most Brits think all U.S. presidential elections are a circus on a P. T. Barnum scale. (A little secret: That’s one reason they have such a devoted international following.) But this one seems, at least for now, to have taken the circus to places never previously enjoyed, or endured. I mean, when the alternative to Trump is Ted Cruz – whose hatred for the government he aspires to run remains a thing of wonder – you begin to worry there might be something in the water.
But Massie says the Europeans do “get” Trump:
I will let you in on a little secret: As offensive and unpredictable and provocative as he may be, we Europeans know the type. Our smug assumptions of superiority can go only so far. After all, this clattering Republican catastrophe is not so far removed from the European way of doing politics as you might think (and not just because Trump’s self-funding has minimized one of American politics’ greatest distinguishing features: the need to raise gobs of money). In fact, all across Europe, the establishment, or the established order, is running scared. As migrants fleeing war zones arrive on the continent, nationalism is surging. Borders, once dissolved, are being resurrected – in some cases, literally. Far-right populist parties, with messages not unlike Trump’s, are gaining power.
There are many of those:
In Italy, the Five Star Movement – a populist, antiestablishment party headed by the comedian Beppe Grillo – won 25 percent of the vote in 2013. In France, everyone expects Marine Le Pen’s ultranationalist Front National to advance to the second round of voting in the forthcoming presidential elections. In Spain, 1 in 5 voters supported the anti-austerity party, Podemos, in last year’s elections. In Greece, Syriza was swept to power last fall on the crest of a wave of outrage. Even Scandinavia, that den of socialism Americans love to loathe, is not immune. In Sweden, the nationalist, anti-immigration Democrats could emerge as the largest party after the next election. And Finland’s True Finns, another nativist, anti-establishment, party, received the second-highest number of seats in last year’s general election. Last week, as if to confirm the trend, the Danish parliament passed a law authorizing the confiscation of asylum seekers’ assets.
These uprisings each have individual explanations. But collectively, they demonstrate a continent in a state of insurrection. Many Europeans, especially those in the working and lower-middle classes, have been buffeted by the cold winds of globalization. Wages are stagnant and unemployment is high. Capitalism might not be in crisis, but there is a sense, all across the developed world, that it no longer spreads its dividends in an equitable fashion. The response to the economy’s near-Armageddon in 2008 confirmed to many citizens that government would leap to the rescue of major financial institutions with vastly greater alacrity than it would assist the average working family. Couple theses economic troubles with high levels of immigration, and you have the conditions within which populism can flourish.
Trumpism, in this sense, is simply an American variant on a theme Europeans know only too well.
Still, this seems different:
To be fair to Cameron, Rowling and all those Brits and Europeans bemoaning Trump’s rise, the man has taken familiar rhetorical tropes about American exceptionalism to the extreme. Presidential candidates always insist that time is short, the stakes are sky-high and the United States has only one more chance to restore its rightful position in the world, to “take America back” and smite the enemy like they have never been smitten before. But even compared with the loopiest American presidential candidates of yore (hello, Michele Bachmann), Trump’s braggadocio – the Mexicans will pay for the wall! – seems exaggerated.
That’s the view from a distance – but at least Trump came in second in Iowa – he lost. In Paris, Libération wrote that while there were few delegates at stake in Iowa, and Trump still leads in national polls, his ego had “claquer le beignet,” which literally translates as “hit the doughnut” but basically means he had to shut up for once. That won’t last. They too sense the absurdity of all this.
And now President Obama has visited a Baltimore mosque and said this:
If we’re serious about freedom of religion – and I’m speaking now to my fellow Christians who remain the majority in this country – we have to understand an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths. And when any religious group is targeted, we all have a responsibility to speak up. And we have to reject a politics that seeks to manipulate prejudice or bias, and targets people because of religion.
That sounds reasonable. The logic is clear. The response was somewhat the opposite:
Republican front-runner Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) are questioning President Obama’s visit to a mosque in a Baltimore suburb on Wednesday, where he preached religious tolerance, recognized the achievements of Muslim Americans and encouraged young Muslim Americans to feel accepted.
Trump, who has long slyly suggested that Obama is not a Christian, said on Fox News on Wednesday night that Obama might have visited the mosque because “maybe he feels comfortable there.” Meanwhile, Rubio said at a town hall at a pub in New Hampshire that Obama’s decision to give a speech at a mosque is yet another example of him dividing the country.
Rubio said this:
Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today: he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims… It’s this constant pitting people against each other that I can’t stand.
Kevin Drum’s dry comment:
There you have it. Ask Christians to reject the politics of bigotry, and you’re pitting people against each other. And Marco Rubio, for one, will have no part of that.
This might be that mass outbreak of madness that Massie noted, but not every Republican is mad as a hatter, because there’s always the new Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. Everyone says he can pull the party’s crazies and the party’s pragmatists together and keep the Republicans from blowing up the government again – at least everyone hopes he can do that. He needs to talk to these people, and the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman notes that he did just that:
Today, Paul Ryan gave a fascinating speech at Heritage Action, a tea party-allied organization that has fashioned itself as the guardian of conservative purity. The speech called for unity. “To quote William Wallace in Braveheart,” he said, “we have to unite the clans.”
Invoking a character played by Mel Gibson, famous for his drunken rants about how the damned Jews are taking over the world, may have been ill-advised, but let that pass. Ryan did his thing:
Not surprisingly, for much of the speech he blamed conservatives’ own sins on progressives, Democrats, and Barack Obama. That has become a familiar refrain. It’s their fault that we’ve become such monsters! But when you say that, you’re still acknowledging that the sins exist.
We’re horrible monsters but Obama made us monsters? What? That’s sort of what Ryan actually said:
My theory of the case is this: We win when we have an ideas contest. We lose when we have a personality contest. We can’t fall into the progressives’ trap of acting like angry reactionaries. The Left would love nothing more than for a fragmented conservative movement to stand in a circular firing squad, so the progressives can win by default.
This president is struggling to remain relevant in an election year when he’s not on the ballot. He is going to do all he can to elect another progressive by distracting the American people. So he’s going to try to get us talking about guns or some other hot-button issue and not about his failures on ISIS or the economy or national security. He’s going to try to knock us off our game. We have to understand his distractions for what they are. Otherwise, we’re going to have a distraction this week, next week, and the week after that. And that’s going to be the Obama playbook all year long.
Waldman is not amused:
Yes, the party of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, cares not for “personality.” And look, nobody “trapped” Republicans into “acting like angry reactionaries.” They did that all on their own. But it’s interesting that Ryan cites guns as a distracting hot-button issue that is important only because Barack Obama is forcing conservatives to talk about it against their will. Last time I checked, lots of Republicans thought the gun issue is absolutely vital to maintaining liberty. The same is true of any other hot-button issue you could name, whether it’s abortion or same-sex marriage or something else: the issue might or might not be advantageous to Democrats, but it’s also very important to at least a significant chunk of the Republican electorate. It’s hard to tell where Ryan draws the line between real issues and distractions, but every time you define an issue as the latter, you’re telling some major Republican constituency to shut its mouth.
That’s not going to work, but Ryan also said this about that evil Obama fellow setting them up:
And so what I want to say to you today is this: Don’t take the bait. Don’t fight over tactics. And don’t impugn people’s motives. It’s fine if you disagree. And there’s a lot that’s rotten in Washington. There’s no doubt about that. But we can’t let how you vote on an amendment to an appropriations bill define what it means to be a conservative. Because, it’s setting our sights too low. Frankly, that’s letting the president define us. That’s what he wants us to do. That’s defining ourselves as an opposition party, instead of a proposition party.
So we have to be straight with each other, and more importantly, we have to be straight with the American people. We can’t promise that we can repeal Obamacare when a guy with the last name Obama is president. All that does is set us up for failure… and disappointment… and recriminations.
When voices in the conservative movement demand things that they know we can’t achieve with a Democrat in the White House, all that does is depress our base and in turn help Democrats stay in the White House. We can’t do that anymore.
Waldman explains the absurdity here:
“Don’t fight over tactics.” That’s just about all Republicans have been fighting about for years. The substantive differences within the party are often minor, and what tends to differentiate a tea partier from an accommodationist squish is just that, tactics. The tea partier and the squish both want to repeal Obamacare; the only difference between them is that the tea partier thinks shutting down the government is an appropriate tactic to make it happen. They both want to reduce the size of government, but the tea partier thinks forcing the United States of America to default on its debts is a good tactic to bring that about. They both want to defund Planned Parenthood; the only difference is whether they think it’s a fight worth having right now.
And so on and so forth – Waldman then goes into detail – but then he gets to the heart of the matter:
Ryan says: “We can’t promise that we can repeal Obamacare when a guy with the last name Obama is president… When voices in the conservative movement demand things that they know we can’t achieve with a Democrat in the White House, all that does is depress our base and in turn help Democrats stay in the White House.”
This is the very heart of the battle that has consumed the party and fed the rebellion playing out in the presidential race. Republican base voters are fed up with a congressional leadership that told them that if those voters helped take back the House and then the Senate – that they’d stop Barack Obama in his tracks – but then failed to deliver. Ryan is correctly arguing that it was stupid to make promises that couldn’t possibly be kept, but he’s arguing that it was making the promise that was the problem, while tea partiers and the base still believe it was the not keeping the promise that was the far greater sin. They see Mitch McConnell and Ryan’s predecessor John Boehner as feckless and weak, lacking the courage to stand up to Barack Obama. In their view, McConnell and Boehner are contemptible not because they lied to them about what could be achieved but because they didn’t achieve the impossible.
But these words from Ryan really infuriate Waldman:
So we need to be inspirational. We need to be inclusive. We need to show how our principles and policies are universal and how they apply to everybody. We know that the economy is weak. We know that the world is on fire. We know that the future is uncertain. There’s a lot of frustration and anger out there. And is it justified? It sure is.
But we should not follow the Democrats and play identity politics. Let’s talk to people in ways that unite us and that are unique to America’s founding. That’s what I think people are hungry for.
Waldman calls bullshit on that:
In case you didn’t notice, the GOP presidential candidates are also playing identity politics right now. The frontrunner for the Republican nomination has proposed banning Muslims from the United States and building a wall across our southern border, called Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers, and questioned one of his opponents’ standing as an American. Another candidate said that no Muslim should be elected president. The Republican establishment’s golden boy could barely open his mouth in the last couple of weeks without invoking Jesus (though maybe now that Iowa is behind him, that’ll change). Identity politics has been central to Republican campaigns for the White House for the last half-century, though I guess if it’s white identity politics then it doesn’t count.
Yes, it only gets more absurd, as Amanda Marcotte discusses Ted Cruz:
For the religious right, especially the most skin-crawlingly creepy folks in the religious right, Cruz’s edging Donald Trump out at the polls represents a huge victory. Because Monday night meant that while their influence might seem to be on the decline, the religious right proved, once again, that they are still a powerful force on the right. Unfortunately, the Republican Party will still have to pay tribute to the nasty crews that use Jesus as a cover to push their lifelong obsession with controlling other people’s sex lives, especially if those people are female or queer.
This is getting creepy:
A lot of attention has been paid to Trump’s oversized ego, but Cruz’s may be even worse. While Trump likes to portray himself as a “winner,” Cruz clawed his way to victory in Iowa by implying – well, more than implying – that he’s a religious messiah, a prophet who is the next best thing to the second coming of Jesus. While denouncing Barack Obama for his supposed “messiah complex,” Cruz has been suggesting that he is the real deal, and that he will win because “the body of Christ” will “rise up to pull us back from the abyss.”
Cruz has been portraying his campaign, in fact, as a religious war in which the true believers will assert themselves as the rightful rulers of this nation. “Strap on the full armor of God, get ready for the attacks that are coming,” he told supporters, who are treated more like believers, at a campaign stop in Iowa.
Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz, has gone even further in suggesting that his son is quite literally God’s emissary sent to turn America into a Christian nation (which tends to be defined as a nation that keeps heavy tabs on what you’re doing with your genitals, instead of one that makes sure there are enough loaves and fishes for everyone). In an interview on Glenn Beck’s show, the senior Cruz and Beck both pushed this notion that Cruz is a prophetic figure come to save us all.
“Everybody was born for a reason,” Beck told Rafael Cruz, while sitting in – no joke – a replica of the Oval Office built for his show. “As I learned your story and saw the fruit of that story, now in your son, I am more and more convinced in the hand of divine providence.”
“Oh, absolutely,” Cruz replied. Who doesn’t want to be the father of the messiah? The last one was literally God himself, after all.
This is the sort of thing Alex Massie was talking about, but there’s more:
As Cruz noted in his victory speech Monday night, Bob Vander Plaats and Rep. Steve King are national co-chairs for his campaign. King, of course, is a notoriously loony right wing nut who has argued that legalizing same-sex marriage means people will now marry lawnmowers and has equated undocumented immigration with the Holocaust.
Vander Plaats, who heads up Iowa’s religious right behemoth, the Family Leader, has argued that his interpretation of “God’s law” should trump the actual laws of our country, that gay marriage will lead to parents marrying their children, and that Vladimir Putin was right to sign a law criminalizing those who speak out for gay rights.
And there’s this:
Cruz also enjoys the support of David Barton, a powerful crank who rose in the ranks of the religious right by feeding the masses totally false but pleasing stories about American history, designed to create the illusion that our country was basically formed as a theocracy… Barton loves to do things like claim the Bible forbids progressive income taxes or the capital gains tax, or that Jesus forbade the minimum wage.
Is that enough? Marcotte has more. There’s always more – with Cruz, with Trump, with Rubio, even with Paul Ryan. Maybe we’re too close to see it. We’re in it, not looking at it with the distance that adds understanding. Perhaps we should all catch the next fight to Paris and sip cognac on a rainy afternoon at that café next to the dark old church that holds the bones of Descartes. London is good too. Want to understand America? Step back.