Trump, Russia, Poland and The West

I’ve figured all along that Team Trump was guilty of something in this regard. You don’t get so cozy with a Russian made man like Paul Manafort, not if you have the ethics of Donald Trump, and not get your hands dirty in some way. The problem so far is that much of the Trump-Russia speculation in the media has gotten out ahead of the known facts. That problem is rapidly going away, and may have just done so.

Here’s the thing that dogs me, and that’s a measure of my own cynicism about Trump: I’m struggling to care about this story at this point. Me, I’ve priced this corruption into my estimation of the man. He is morally unfit to be president. By the time his presidency is over, he will have made Richard Nixon and Warren G. Harding, previously thought to be considered the two most corrupt American presidents, look like Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Green Jeans (sorry, Millennials; you have to be of a certain age to get the reference).

I guess it’s Trump fatigue. He has so lowered the bar on presidential behavior that this latest revelation comes across as just one more damn thing.

(Rod Dreher) I can’t say I’m with Rod on this one. I have not assumed “that Team Trump was guilty of something” with regard to Russia, nor do I think that the meeting of Manafort, Junior and Natasha Fatale is a smoking gun.

Analogy: 30+ years ago, we suffered a very disappointing loss in a Federal civil jury trial. As was then routine, the Judge ordered parties and counsel not to contact jurors. We didn’t. But a friend of our client, who had sat through the trial and was not subject to the Order, did somehow make contact, not at our instigation, and brought us information we couldn’t ignore. We filed a motion, were smacked down for trying to impeach the jury’s verdict, and even were rebuked by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals for having made the contact ourselves — a falsehood unsupported by any evidence — in violation of the trial court Order.

If I had it to do over again, I could not do it otherwise, even if I knew I’d be falsely accused and “convicted” by a judicial rebuke.

So I’m sympathetic, in bare-knuckled context of politics, with willingness to listen to any source that bodes to help. If Team Hillary had been approached by the same lawyer, promising to dish dirt on The Donald, I suspect they’d have sent Leon Panetta to Natasha with flowers and chocolates.

I have changed my views on another political-ish topic within the last week, though.

I had assumed that we’re still demonizing Russia through a failure of imagination, particularly on the part of Republicans (who were more hawkish during the cold war) — that we, or the GOP at least, needed someone to demonize, and that Russian would fit the bill admirably.

I’m now inclined — after Trump’s Warsaw speech, the reactions it provoked, and my idiosyncratic processing of that all — to think that we’re still demonizing Russia for the more specific reason that it represents the major more-or-less Western, more-or-less modern, power center that doesn’t buy our “universalist” dream that love of liberal democracy burns intensely, if secretly, in every human breast. Cynically or not, Putin “is positioning himself as the world’s leading defender of traditional values,” and notwithstanding domestic political prattle from what passes for The Right in America, genuinely traditional values are antithetical to our vaunted capitalist economic dynamism.

For that reason at least, demonizing Russia is a bipartisan consensus. Call that a “measure of my own cynicism” if you like.

We could talk at length about how both Republicans and Democrats in Washington have over the last 20 years or so supported policies that have benefited Wall Street interests at the expense of the common good. I’m not sure if you can still watch it on the PBS website, but in 2009, Frontline aired an episode called “The Warning”, about how a relatively minor government regulator, back during the late 1990s, warned Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, Clinton economic adviser Larry Summers, and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, that the derivatives market threatened to crash the entire economy. They all shut her down. Didn’t want to hear it. Wall Street was making too much money (and note well, the GOP Congressional leadership was fully on board with Team Clinton in this respect). We all remember what eventually happened in 2007-08. How many bankers went to jail over it, or paid any kind of professional price? How many Washington politicians?

I don’t think many, if any, laws were broken. But that doesn’t mean the corruption did not go deep.

(Dreher, whose whole column is worth reading. Don’t miss his comments about Obama’s personal rectitude combined with his willingness to impose damnable lies as destructive public policy).

As long as we’re on Trump, more or less, let’s go back to Warsaw and the reactions.

Not all reactions were shrill. John Mark N. Reynolds was generally admiring of the speech, and caught gentle heck from two Christian friends on roughly opposite political poles.

Reynolds opened with Mr. Trump goes to Poland, the very title of which offended a historian friend:

And it irks me because it exhibits the exact inversion of power dynamics that I’m going to describe in this response, as well as those which convinced otherwise good-hearted people to vote for a predatory man who proposed policies of oppression, scapegoating, and physical violence. Mr. Smith went to Washington to serve his constituents and build a camp for underprivileged boys he mentored. Mr. Trump called for the illegal execution of five wrongly accused boys as the first act of his political career. The comparison, even in mere syntax, feeds the narrative Trump tries to spin of his own victimization.

It seems to me that you are encouraged by this speech because (1) it elevates Poland and (2) it affirms our commitment to defending “western values.” These are both, perhaps, good things. But both the text of the speech and the character of the administration that produced it immediately require a much more critical eye than your piece gives it.

The core problem is context. The president stood in the square where thousands were murdered by Nazis, thousands who expected Allied aid that never came, and he did so as the first US president to play footsie with NATO’s Article 5. He praised a Poland of the past that overwhelmingly stood between tyrants and their victims, a nation in which the highest proportion of individuals chose to sacrifice themselves in order to personally hide Jewish people from Nazi death squads, and he called Poland’s current refusal to accept today’s refugees a continuation of that spirit instead of what it is: its betrayal.

The trick of white nationalism is to pretend the power dynamic is inverted. The conquerors, therefore, only conquer out of fear of conquest. The oppressor only oppresses to prevent greater oppression. Throughout our history as a nation, the United States has perfected this inversion and presented it for generations as fact ….

Next day, I was expecting Reynolds’ response to this friend, but, no, he’d caught heck from another friend, a pro-life Democrat who voted for Trump over Hillary:

The Left is the Boy who called Wolf. To accuse President Trump of racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia for a speech that was manifestly anti-racist, pro-Semitic, and xenophilic is to destroy what little remains of their credibility.

The critics’ argument is premised on the idea that any reference to “Western” civilization or “Western” values, or to any threat from the “East” or “South” is inherently racist and pro-Christian. This is, of course, nonsense. The idea of an opposition between East and West dates back to the war of the ancient Greeks against Xerxes’ invasion. It was also prominent at the time of the battle of Actium, when Octavius defeated Egyptian and Syrian troops commanded by Mark Antony. The idea of Western civilization predates Christianity by several centuries, and the invention of racism by Darwinian anthropologists by several millennia. Western civilization is essentially Roman civilization. Cicero and Virgil define its essential shape and tone, involving a way of life in which we find the rule of law, a sharp distinction of private and public, individual rights and private property, intermediate institutions, including schools and corporations, anthropomorphic gods, freedom of debate and philosophical inquiry, and a literature extolling civic virtue and romantic love.

My own problem with the speech is that Trump failed to recognize the distinction between the Communist Soviet Union and the authoritarian and nationalist Russia of today. The latter represents many orders of magnitude less danger to the world than did the former. We need to revive Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s useful distinction between authoritarian regimes and totalitarian ones. The world’s only totalitarian regimes are North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela, with Iran lying near the borderline. China and Russia have evolved into merely authoritarian regimes (as has Vietnam and former Soviet republics like Moldova and Uzbekistan) …

Let me close by addressing the larger question, the supposed “Bannonism” of the Trump administration. Ethnic, ethnicity, ethnos—these are not curse-words, some litany of Satanism. The creation and recognition of the status of nations (ethnos is simply Greek for nation) is one of the fruits of Christian civilization. I recommend the work of Roger Scruton, especially The West and the Rest, and T. S. Eliot’s classic Notes toward the Definition of Culture.

No nation is reducible to a set of ideas or a propositional creed. That includes the United States. Trump critics pose a false dichotomy: either abstract universalism or fascistic racism ….

Finally, Reynolds replies to both. I found his response on “Bannonism” especially notable:

I define Bannonism as being both an idea and an approach to politics. Let’s begin with the approach. Bannon has advocated a “by any means” conservatism, beating the left at her own game. Politics is not a Sunday School picnic and we can hit hard, but not use any means. We cannot (as Christians) hate, torture, or slander.

Christians are not too genteel to do those things, but too meek like Moses or Jesus.  Of course, you do not take issue with this, I assume you are not in favor of “by any means,” but that is central to my rejection of Bannonism. Christians are willing to be martyred rather than “win” in the short term!

You defend the nationalism of Bannon and here too we disagree. I think strong patriotism is compatible with Christianity, but not nationalism. I am an American and I love my nation, but I cannot think her special or unique. We are not “chosen” as Israel was chosen, though like any people group we have a work to do.

If you haven’t reached personal bedrock in your views of the Warsaw speech, or if you just want to see some civil and irenic comment among friends (well, Reynolds is the hub of the wheel; his two friends don’t interact directly), it’s worth 20 minutes or so to read the series.

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There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.