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The Closing of the Conservative Mind

Donald Trump won last year’s Republican civil war and most of the losers surrendered.

A buffoonish and narcisistic reality TV star who spent his entire life as a boorish Democrat and who had nothing but contempt for the Republican Party and traditional American conservatism has managed, like a conquering warlord, to rally the vanquished around him.

There are exceptions, however, and Claire Berlinski is one of them. She and I spent the last decade covering foreign affairs in the Middle East and Europe and are alarmed by the new president’s contempt for the American-made trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific security architecture and at how whimsically American conservatives are willing to reverse their own party’s longstanding positions on everything from Vladimir Putin to NATO.

She and I spoke last week.

MJT: I want to start with a quote from retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus.

"Americans should not take the current international order for granted. It did not will itself into existence. We created it. Likewise, it is not naturally self-sustaining. We have sustained it. If we stop doing so, it will fray and, eventually, collapse.”

That is an excellent rebuttal to the Obama administration’s limp foreign policy of managed American decline overseas, and we heard a version of Petraeus’ critique from conservatives for eight years during the previous president’s term. But Petraeus said that two weeks ago while chastising the Trump administration. Donald Trump doing worse than doubling-down on Obamaism rather than reversing it as John McCain or Mitt Romney would have done. He seems to be willing to set the entire American-made international order on fire, as if everything from 1945 onward is suddenly on the table, not just NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership but even Japan’s demilitarization and NATO. He is consistently friendlier to Vladimir Putin’s Russia than he is to Europe. The Republican Party would have a stress-induced heart attack if a Democratic president were doing these things, wouldn’t it?

Claire Berlinski: Yeah, on Twitter David Frum wrote, "It’s as if a hostile foreign power has seized the US government and is by remote control steering it toward the maximum possible catastrophe.” Which it really is. I man, what more would you do?

Did you see that CNN piece about what happened at a Mar-a-Lago dinner party after they got news of the North Korean missile launch? “Trump and [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe’s evening meal quickly morphed into a strategy session, the decision-making on full view to fellow diners, who described it in detail to CNN.”

You’re there, I’m not—I can’t tell if people are slowly beginning to realize just what an insane catastrophe we’ve got ourselves into, as in, we could all die from this kind of incompetence and from his species of mental illness—or are the people who voted for him still mostly stuck in cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, minimizing reports like that as, yeah, overwrought, pearl-clutchers' Lügenpresse

I’m scared. Trouble sleeping, scared. I just don’t sense (from here) the urgency that ought to be there around the right issues. Yes, people are marching about abortion rights and racism, but this is so much bigger than abortion rights or building a wall or whatever at this point. This is about basic competence to do the job of the commander-in-chief, to keep communication secure, to read and understand a cable, to make judgments about the last vestiges of the NPT. I frankly don’t know if the guy can even read. And I don’t think he has a clue about what Petraeus said. If we say, “To hell with it,” it will go to hell, and faster than anyone imagines possible.

MJT: You’re right, there isn’t enough urgency about protecting the international order. The only people who seem to care are disaffected Never Trump conservatives and national security liberals from the centrist wing of the Democratic Party. The left, for the most part, is still stuck on identity politics and banging on about how mean and offensive Trump is. Trump is mean and offensive, so that’s fair enough as far as it goes, but if the international order falls apart while they’re making fun of him on Saturday Night Live and Twitter, so what?

The right, meanwhile, is banging on about America First, apparently oblivious to the fact that the last time we had an America First movement in the United States, Adolf Hitler became ruler of Europe. There is no Hitler on the horizon—ISIS is just as vicious but far too weak, and Vladimir Putin doesn’t even qualify as a bat boy in the league Hitler played in—but still. I can’t quite tell if American conservatives are going along with this for tribal partisan reasons or if the vast majority of my fellow citizens, left and right, don’t really care if the world burns as long as ISIS leaves us alone and we can fix health care.

Everyone seems to have forgotten that the American-built international order exists because it serves our national interests. How on earth did we get to the point where left and right alike are blowing it off? Because the Iraq War didn’t work out how we hoped? There has to be more going on than just that. Newt Gingrich suggested last year that NATO might not defend Estonia if Russia invaded, and that has nothing whatsoever to do with the Middle East.

Claire Berlinski: Two thoughts about that “America First” slogan. The first is that I cannot believe, or maybe I can but I just don’t want to, that people are using this slogan and thinking it’s fine. I’ve spent all week writing a response, probably never to be published, to Newt Gingrich’s column in the Washington Post, the one where he wrote that Trump’s model is Margaret Thatcher. (And he appeals to my book to make his case, which is why I’ve spent a week having a futile mental argument with him.) I was looking through the Thatcher archives to see if she’d ever referred to that slogan. I didn't find a specific reference to it, but there are thousands of documents that make it absolutely crystal clear what she would have said, if asked. This is from 1997, well after the end of the Cold War:

We dare not forget that the freedom of this cultured, enterprising people [she was in Prague] was snuffed out by each of the two monstrous, totalitarian systems of our century—intimidated, dismembered, and absorbed by Nazi Germany; subverted, betrayed, and enslaved by Communist Russia; and each time with the West standing impotently aside. These are blots on the history of the civilized world…

How quickly lessons are forgotten and deductions from events distorted! Two world wars have flowed from American disengagement from Europe. [my emphasis] By contrast, the cold war was won because America defended Western Europe’s security as its own...

I keep thinking that something really strange has happened to American collective national memory—whole things that should be there, basic memories of things we all lived through, or things our parents or our grandparents lived through, have [snap!] just gone missing. Like a person who has a stroke and loses the fifth grade. I’ve actually been spending a lot of time puzzling over this, as I guess you are, trying to figure out if this happens to every generation—does everyone sooner or later see this happening if they live long enough? Or is this kind of collective amnesia really specific to this political moment, and if so, why? Is it something to do with the Internet? The long-term effects of television? Could there be a cause that no one’s even imagined yet?*

Anyway, Margaret Thatcher is nothing like Trump, and Newt should know this perfectly well because they were contemporaries. And she would have flipped her wig if an American president had used the slogan “America First” in his inaugural address. Repeatedly. I mean, for God’s sake! You'd have to be entirely unfamiliar with the interwar period and the origins of the Second World War to be unaware where it comes from and what it means. To the point of having no real sense at all of how the world you live in came into being—you’d be like a goldfish circling ‘round and ‘round the tank, thinking, “The tank is eternal, the tank is all there is, the tank is all there has ever been, the tank is all there ever will be.” It’s so goddamned weird: The President of the United States of America and some vast number of American citizens have never read an article in some in-flight magazine about Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee opposing the war against Nazi Germany, or spoken to a Second World War vet, or seen a documentary. The place in their minds where that stuff usually goes, probably along with the whole saga of the Spirit of St. Louis and the baby kidnapping—all of that is just blank. Nothing there. 

I suppose one thing that’s made it possible for someone to use the slogan “America First” is that the generation that lived through the Second World War is dying off. But Trump isn’t that young—he’d have grown up surrounded by veterans of the war; he’d know about all of this just from osmosis, right? I just came across a speech Thatcher gave in 1999 where she said, “There are very few today who doubt the prophetic importance of Churchill’s speeches attacking the appeasement of Nazism in the thirties.” How the hell did we not only manage to find one of those very few but elect him president! 

And that’s the most charitable interpretation. The charitable interpretation is that Trump is entirely unfamiliar with the cultural and political history of the United States, with Churchill’s efforts to convince America to enter the war, with Lindbergh and the America First Committee. He really doesn’t know any of it. But how could a mind so spotlessly virginal be able to understand, no less wisely discharge, the awesome responsibilities of the office he now holds? 

Then there's the less charitable interpretation. How could he not have known by the day he was inaugurated? The media went nuts, the ADL “begged him to reconsider.” So maybe he’s using it consciously. I resist this thought because the idea of an American president who consciously models himself on a Nazi sympathizer like Charles Lindbergh is too weird and frightening to confront, so I retreat to the idea that I'm reading too much into things. But then, that inaugural speech, Jesus. It’s just impossible to avoid hearing all those Nazi associations. One heart, one home, and one glorious destiny…total allegiance…The alternative to believing all of that resonance was intentional is believing the inaugural address of the 45th President of the United States was written with no thought, care or craft. Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth, right? And whichever one it is, it’s unthinkable.

*Maybe one day researchers will pinpoint the moment in 2013 when Flight Attendant X returned from Caracas, bringing with her the highly infectious T. idiocracii virus she’d contracted from a lemur in a petting zoo …

MJT: Like you, Claire, I would like to be charitable. I have always believed that one should not ascribe to malice what can just as easily be explained by incompetence. I repeatedly used that maxim to defend the Obama administration in online discussions, and I will do the same for the Trump administration. It seems like a small thing, but it’s huge actually. Having two incompetent presidents in a row is a very different thing from having two malicious and treasonous presidents in a row. America can survive one of those scenarios, but not the other.

And I think it’s safe to say at this point that Donald Trump is staggeringly incompetent intellectually. He does not read. He learns everything he thinks he knows from television. Where did you learn about Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee? Probably not from television. I certainly didn’t. I am not a historian, but I have shelves and shelves of history books in my office. Meanwhile, the president of the United States is so incurious intellectually that he isn’t even interested in his intelligence briefings.

I got into an argument online recently with a man who calls himself a historian who says he hadn’t heard of the America First Committee until this year. I’m pretty sure he was lying, but either way something terrible indeed has happened to America’s historical memory. The best explanation I can think of is that those who lived through that period are no longer with us and not enough people read anything that isn’t on Facebook.

I don’t mean to come across like an intellectual snob. To paraphrase our City Journal colleague Anthony Daniels, a society that consisted of nothing but scholars would soon starve to death, and it wouldn’t be very interesting while it lasted. But we’re talking about the president of the United States here. I expect more from him than I expect from the man who picks up the garbage on my sidewalk each Monday.

What alarms me even more, though, to be honest, is the vast number of people who voted for him (Because Hillary) and feel some tribal partisan need to defend and Trumpsplain every half-baked thing he says. What is going to happen to the conservative half of America if they convince themselves that every conspiracy theory and "alternative fact" that comes out of his mouth is actually true? I've seen a lot of that in the Arab world and it doesn’t end well.

Claire Berlinski: Yes, this is the second-most-alarming part of the whole thing. (The first-most alarming part being the unprecedented number of massive international crises involving nuked up, stressed-out, barely-above-failed states actors, all about to come to a head even as POTUS calmly dines al fresco— “munching on crisp wedges of iceberg lettuce and blue cheese dressing”—at an unsecure Czar-a-Lago dining table, classified documents strewn hither and yon and illuminated by no-doubt compromised cell phones beaming back to the Kremlin every detail of the interchange.) What are London bookies giving the odds on a nuclear weapons exchange before the end of the administration?

And yes, the second-most-alarming thing is really fucking alarming, too. I know especially well from Ricochet that they are in their own, internally consistent cognitive world and can’t be reasoned out of it. We desperately need a compromise figure—one of true greatness—around whom the country can rally, but I can’t see one. Ben Sasse is too much of a wimp. Because this is getting too dangerous: They don’t think they’re at war with radical Islam, China, or Russia: They thing they’re at war with people like you and me. Heretics.

MJT: Welcome to my world. The left declared me a heretic fifteen years ago. It’s survivable. You will lose some friends but you will also make new ones. Some of your new friends may be temporary while others will be permanent.

At least the left is not hunting heretics at the moment, but I sense something terrible is about to happen to the Democratic Party as well. A cranky socialist from Vermont who isn’t even a Democrat almost pulled off a hostile takeover of that party. Bernie Sanders hasn’t learned a single new thing about economics or politics since the 1930s. He and most of his fans are just as ignorant about foreign policy as Donald Trump. Whatever is wrong with America and the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, he can’t possibly be the right answer.

Both the left and the right have become much more aggressive in the last year, and they are both becoming less liberal in the classical sense of that word. I fear that the United States is gearing up for a political Clash of the Titans, with two enormous politically unhinged factions battling it out against each other at the ballot box, in Congress and in the streets. It makes me tempted to relocate myself to the countryside.

Something huge is sweeping over America and Donald Trump is just a symptom. If he has a stress-induced heart attack tomorrow and is replaced by Mike Pence I’ll breathe a sigh of relief, but we’re at the very beginning of a new era now, and removing Donald Trump from the White House would not put an end to it. Whatever this is, it seems to be happening in Europe too, and since you live in Paris, I have to ask: how are things looking on the Continent? There is no way that Brexit is the last act of the right-wing populist movements in Europe.

Claire Berlinski: Have you ever read the memorandum that Undersecretary of State Will Clayton sent back to Dean Acheson in 1947 about Europe, arguing for the Marshall Plan? “Without further prompt and substantial aid from the United States,” he wrote,

economic, social, and political disintegration will overwhelm Europe. Aside from the awful implications which this would have for the future peace and security of the world, the immediate effects on our domestic economy would be disastrous: markets for our surplus production gone, unemployment, depression, a heavily unbalanced budget on the background of a mountainous war debt. ·.. It will be necessary for the President and Secretary of State to make a strong spiritual appeal to the American people to sacrifice a little themselves, to draw in their own belts just a little in order to save Europe from starvation and chaos (not from the Russians [emphasis original]) and, at the same time, to preserve, for ourselves and our children the glorious heritage of a free America. 

“The United States,” he concluded, “must run this show.”

So that’s been the policy, since 1947—We can’t be totally straight with Americans about the nature of our security interests in Europe, but we have them. And that’s been true since and remains true now. It’s been taken as axiomatic by US defense planners that, as they put it in the 1995 National Security Strategy, “The United States has vital interests in a Europe that is democratic, undivided, stable and prosperous, open to trade and investment opportunities, and supportive of political, economic, and military cooperation with the United States in Europe and other important parts of the world.” But we never did get around to updating the messaging for Americans: We sold this as, “Let’s make sure the poor kids of Europe don’t starve,” and now, given that they’re visibly not starving, Americans don’t get why it's still important for us to run this show. Our leaders never bothered to explain to them that it was always a little more complicated (but no less important) than that. 

And lately, unsurprisingly, we’ve had a lot of Americans wondering why we do this. Perhaps we don’t have a vital interest in any of this? Would we truly notice the difference if Europe were autocratic, divided, unstable, poor, closed to trade and investment, and unsupportive of cooperation with the United States? Or in an alliance with China

(Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s intellectually healthy to ask these questions: Every so often, even our most fundamental axioms should be subjected to rigorous scrutiny. But it is a kind of suicidal ideation, geopolitically speaking, to be asking this question in the White House, right now, precisely as we run the real risk of finding out.) 

So here we are, with Russia taking big bites out of Europe. Just days before Donald Trump became the ultimate guarantor of the West’s security, just days before he enters the White House, the President-elect once again expressed, unprompted, his diffidence or disdain toward NATO and the European Union. He pretty much said there’s no longer a purpose to the West’s security architecture. It’s hard to imagine how his comments would have been different had they been written by the Kremlin (and now of course many of us are wondering if they were, literally). But this is even more bizarre because James Mattis, his own nominee for Secretary of Defense recently warned that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea have created “the most dangerous situation in a crisis-strewn region. And there is the potential I believe that Putin has unleashed forces that he will be personally unable to control.” So God knows what our policy is—I suppose it will depend who wins the bureaucratic shadow war. I wouldn’t bet against Mattis, but that’s another question.

(Tangentially, it’s not ridiculous to describe the EU, as Trump did, as a “vehicle” for German control. What Trump meant was unclear, but it’s true that the point of the EU, even if it is diplomatically unspeakable, is that it’s a vehicle for controlling Germany—which is and will always be an unstoppably dynamic continental power—and peacefully harnessing its energy. The pacification of Germany and its transformation into the continent’s peaceful economic engine are among the greatest achievements in American history, perhaps the greatest. So while I don’t think that’s what Trump meant, he inadvertently said something insightful.)     

So where Europe is going will depend a lot on where the US is going. Angela Merkel’s saying the right thing when she says “Europe’s future is in our hands”—I mean, what else can she say—but the US has always played a role no European power can play, because Europe (especially with Britain out) has no stable, hegemonic power center except Germany, and there are just too many bad memories for Germany to play that role. That’s why Europe has been so hapless at confronting all the things it obviously needs to confront. It can’t agree on a solid plan for the refugee crisis, a single and coherent foreign policy, a response to the Euro crisis, or (as we will soon see) a negotiating strategy with Britain. No one’s really in charge. It was designed with the assumption that the US would, in effect, be in charge. So the EU doesn’t have the authority to fix the problems that are causing the crisis of legitimacy for the EU. 

But the historically illiterate ideologues in the US who assume, because Nigel Farage told them so, that if the EU collapses, you’ll suddenly get a blooming garden of happy, sovereign, prosperous, and independent nation-states, all trading and cooperating together with ease? They’re out of their minds. Everything in European history tells us what would happen: violent competition for mastery and imperial expansion, with the smaller states swallowed up by the larger ones. I mean, do these people even realize that France was never a nation? It went right from being an empire to being part of the EU. 

Anyway, in the last decade or so there’s been a cottage industry in writing books about the mounting risks to Europe and the transatlantic alliance. I wrote one ten years ago; it was widely seen as alarmist. It isn’t seen that way any more, although the odd thing is that I think it should be seen that way, it was alarmist. I missed a lot, and failed to see a lot of strengths that are also here. As you know I just reviewed Jamie Kirchick's first book, The End of Europe, the latest entry in the specter-haunting-Europe genre, and in some chapters, it's excellent, especially when he sticks to his former RFE/RL beat and discusses the way Russia exploits ethnic tensions along Europe’s eastern periphery. Yes, Europe has a big problem assimilating immigrants; yes, we’re seeing the rise of authoritarian populist parties everywhere; yes, the whole thing’s a financial house of cards just waiting for the Italian banks to collapse; yes, they have no idea how to pay for their social welfare states, especially because Europeans don’t have babies. All of that is true. As is the usual list of problems people talk about when they talk about Europe: anti-Semitism, nationalism, high debt levels. Doomed by its own demography to financial shocks and economic sluggishness. The aging population undermines productivity and shifts consumption toward services, such as health care, and away from goods and investment. The shortage of younger workers reduces tax revenues, so immigration to bolster the workforce is the only solution, and tension about immigration inevitable. The number of European states with autocratic elements is on the rise and no one knows what to do about this. And of course, almost every day you read of another boat full of refugees capsizing in the Mediterranean. No one knows what to do about that either. 

The EU’s institutions just weren’t built to handle problems like this. The EU sets monetary policy for Eurozone states, but state capitals retain fiscal and security responsibilities, so the poorer members wind up saddled with debt and sluggish growth—and no state ultimately responsible in a buck-stops-here way for challenges like securing European borders. The banks are still unevenly capitalized and regulated. There is still no common plan to cope with migration within and into Europe.

And Donald Trump is dead wrong about Brexit. It’s a catastrophe, one that will encourage regional and separatist movements throughout Europe. There are dozens of Yugoslavias-in-prospect. I mean, again, this is an important point — these people who want to “go back” to a time when all of these countries were independent know no European history at all. These were collections of duchies and principalities and empires. There was no “France,” there was no “Italy,” there was no “Germany,” and as soon as there were, they started slaughtering each other. For years, the task of figuring out how to get Britain out of Europe in the least damaging way will preoccupy Britain and the Continent, undermining the region’s international clout and weakening transatlantic cooperation, to the extent that the US under Trump isn’t inclined to cooperate about anything. And the far-right populist parties thrive on this kind of chaos. They’re financed by the Kremlin, and sympathetic to it, or willing to accommodate it, and they've making steady electoral gains. And like our populists, they won’t be able to make anything better if they take power. They’ll just create chaos. 

There’s a risk, though, that I hadn’t appreciated in pointing out all of these problems. The risk is of evoking contempt in American readers, rather than concern; fatalism in the place of leadership. The optimism about Europe in 2000 was excessive, but the pessimism about Europe now is also, probably, excessive. The Franco-German border is completely demilitarized. Americans have become totally hysterical about Muslim migration into Europe, but the fear is completely out of proportion. There are seven hundred million Europeans here—a million Muslims won’t change things all that profoundly. The collapse of the European Union does not, inherently, need to be a humanitarian catastrophe—it depends how it’s managed. And if European demography suggests reasons for pessimism about Europe’s future, there is also a bright side: Old people don’t go to war.

I have a lot more to say about this, but short answer: I’m more worried about the US. If the US behaves like a rational superpower, all of this can be managed. But if we keep it up with this Sick-Man-of-the-Globe act, Europe will wash down the tubes with us, I fear. 

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