Matt Johnson: Trump and universal illiberalism

Topeka Capital-Journal opinion page editor Matt Johnson.

If I could only use one word to describe President Trump, I’d be tempted to say something about his character: “narcissistic,” “petulant” and “opportunistic” all come to mind. However, while these words may explain his behavior, they don’t tell us much about his worldview. A word like “illiberal,” on the other hand, is far more instructive. From Trump’s incitement of mob violence at his rallies to his sickly affection for dictators to his open hostility toward the media, his illiberal impulses are always on display.


Does this mean I think Trump is interchangeable with Vladimir Putin? Or Recep Tayyip Erdogan? Or Kim Jong-un? Of course not. I’m not aware of any protesters he’s imprisoned or killed. He hasn’t shut down any websites or news organizations. He hasn’t illegally annexed any territory. But whenever Trump’s critics describe him as “authoritarian” or “illiberal,” someone will invariably accuse them of “making it out as though Mr. Trump is a kind of Putin, Erdogan or Kim Jong-un — not Hitler exactly, but at least Hitler lite.” Yoram Hazony made this argument in a recent piece for The Wall Street Journal, challenging the commentators who equate — or at least compare — these autocrats to “democratically chosen public figures or policies (Mr. Trump, Brexit, Polish immigration rules).”

But Hazony doesn’t stop there — he contends that “illiberalism” is actually a meaningless concept.

And even if it did summarize a broadly coherent set of ideas and inclinations, he says, the concern about it is grossly exaggerated: “A battalion of our best-known journalists and intellectuals are straining to persuade readers that there exists some real-world phenomenon called ‘illiberalism,’ and that it is, moreover, a grave threat.” Instead of identifying the consequences of illiberalism as problems that need to be addressed — belligerent nativism, inflamed hatred toward the media, indifference about human rights, etc. — Hazony thinks the “politics of liberalism vs. illiberalism, is itself an important, troubling development.”

Still, Hazony admits that illiberalism — at least as some people would define it — has been on the rise since the end of the Cold War: “People are simply much less interested in becoming liberals than liberals had supposed.” He says the proliferation of “truculent and unaccommodating regimes and movements” rendered liberal internationalism “virtually worthless in determining priorities” because there were far too many illiberal regimes to feasibly oppose: “In a world full of illiberals, how to choose whether to go after Russia or China? Saudi Arabia or Iran? India or Pakistan? Bashar Assad or the al Qaeda-dominated Sunni rebels?”

Hazony’s piece is full of lazy straw men like this. Can he name a single liberal internationalist who believes the U.S. should approach every illiberal regime in the same way? Does he think it’s impossible to prioritize human rights and democratic values while acknowledging that we can never resist illiberalism everywhere? Of course the U.S. can’t “go after” Russia or China in the same way it “goes after” jihadists in Syria — we’re talking about the difference between a diffuse paramilitary organization and two of the most powerful nuclear-armed states on the planet. Would he have made the same argument against intervening in the Balkans? Did he think it was somehow inconsistent to assist the people who were under attack by Slobodan Milosevic’s ethno-nationalist forces without attacking Russia, China and Saudi Arabia for good measure?

Hazony points out that the U.S. was able to win the Cold War because it didn’t try to impose its conception of liberalism on countries that were willing to “resist Soviet totalitarianism and defend a measure of freedom — whether greater or lesser — in their own countries.”

In other words, the amoral realpolitik of the Cold War made more sense than today’s fashionable liberal internationalism. Beyond the odious ethical implications of that claim — Hazony should ask an Indonesian who witnessed the country’s U.S.-backed communist purge about the “moral and pragmatic considerations” that guided our foreign policy during the Cold War — it doesn’t make any sense. First, in the 21st century, the U.S. faces no foe comparable to the Soviet Union. Second, there’s no reason why we can’t resist illiberalism whenever possible and work with important authoritarian regimes like China (which is now the second-largest financial backer of peacekeeping operations in the world) when necessary. Hazony demands perfect consistency, but that’s just not possible in the real world.

It’s tediously obvious that the U.S. occasionally has to ignore the brutality of certain regimes to pursue its interests — any tenth-grader will tell you that the Allies couldn’t have won World War II without Stalin. And Hazony quickly moves from banality to pure obscurantism when he writes, “There is no such thing as illiberalism.” He expands on this bizarre statement with a disingenuous argument that doesn’t even attempt to honestly summarize the view of his opponents: “No reasonable purpose is served by using a term that lumps together totalitarians, autocrats, conservatives and democratic nationalists, as though these are all varieties of a single dark worldview.”

Of course the word “illiberal” encompasses a vast spectrum of regimes, movements and people, but in what sense do liberal internationalists lump all of them together? Sure, some commentators foolishly insist that Trump is a fascist or a totalitarian-in-waiting, but a liberal internationalist can dismiss such nonsense just as easily as Hazony.

A discussion about global trends in repression, populism, nativism, etc. doesn’t automatically lead to the absurd ideological conflations that Hazony imagines. For example, when Freedom House reported that “2016 marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom,” did Hazony think it was some kind of confused liberal scheme to summarize a “single dark worldview” that doesn’t really exist? When I write about the similarities between the election of Trump, Brexit and the relative success of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, am I making the same mistake? Why does Hazony ignore all the ways in which authoritarian states and movements converge? While historical, religious, cultural and political contexts vary widely, the “dark” aspects of human nature don’t.

A truncheon to the skull has the same effect in Russia that it does in Venezuela. A Chinese censor is doing the same thing as a Turkish censor — curtailing the free exchange of information. Whether protesters are dragged into cells in Egypt or Iran, the same fundamental human rights are being stamped out.

And yes, when it comes to certain issues (such as press freedom), the difference between Trump and many of his more illiberal counterparts is just a matter of degree. Hazony may think this is a hysterical overstatement, but I wonder how he interprets Trump’s tireless efforts to destroy the credibility of critical news organizations in the U.S. I wonder what he thought when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department might start issuing more subpoenas to journalists. Is he troubled by Trump’s incessant campaign to make objective truth seem as malleable as possible with a gushing torrent of lies and conspiracy theories? How about his campaign promise to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”? Or his interest in establishing a registry of every Muslim in the country? Or his threat to murder the families of suspected terrorists? Or his encouragement of police brutality?

Trump can’t be described as “Hitler lite,” but I don’t think “Putin lite” is much of a stretch.

Contact Matt Johnson at (785) 295-1282 or @mattjj89 on Twitter.



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