Trump’s authoritarian threat: this time it’s for real
As of November 9, 2016, here was the bad news: America had elected as its president an egregiously incompetent, childishly impulsive, crassly narcissistic man with authoritarian instincts. Here was the good news: it was possible to imagine these causes for concern interacting in such a way that some would neutralize others.
In particular: Maybe Trump’s incompetence, impulsiveness, and narcissism would keep him from realizing his authoritarian potential. After all, it takes skill and focus to erode civil liberties and aggrandize power while maintaining a critical mass of public support. Mussolini didn’t get to be Mussolini by throwing a public tantrum every day, filling his administration with dimwits, and engaging in zero long-term planning!
As of five months ago—three years after inauguration day—this hopeful scenario remained more or less intact. Trump had been thuggish and cruel, and he’d weakened norms that guard liberties, but it was still hard to imagine him systematically subverting liberal democracy and ushering in an authoritarian state.
But then the ground started to shift, and over the past ten days it’s shifted a lot. Trump’s incompetence and self-absorption, rather than short-circuit his authoritarian bent, are now energizing it.
What started the shift was the arrival in January of something the country had been spared throughout the Trump era: a new challenge of epic scale that urgently demanded presidential competence. Trump’s failure to contain the coronavirus with early and decisive intervention meant that his belated intervention would have to be dramatic but still couldn’t be conclusive. A nationwide lockdown would now “flatten the curve” but at this late date couldn’t crush it and meanwhile would create massive unemployment. America was condemned to a state of widespread economic deprivation and social dislocation with no end to the epidemic in sight.
This atmosphere of disease and discontent fed the civil unrest of the past ten days in various ways. For starters, if it weren’t for the pandemic, George Floyd might still be alive. Before he allegedly handed a counterfeit $20 bill to the store clerk who fatefully called the police, Floyd had lost his job as a bouncer because of the lockdown.
Not long ago I had a conversation on The Wright Show with the renowned Christian scholar David Bentley Hart, who subscribes to the doctrine of universal salvation—which, I’m happy to report, holds that no one suffers eternal damnation. Hart cites a long lineage of support for this idea in Christian thought, and he contends that a close reading of Christian scripture supports it as well. Plus (to oversimplify his argument slightly) there’s the question of what kind of God would want you to suffer forever. Hart is an engaging, witty, and very learned conversationalist, and I learned a lot from him.
You're a very well-known [and] prolific theologian. And you've written a book called That All Shalt Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, in which you bring good news to us all. Which is that none of us—not me, not even Sam Harris—is going to hell. That is your view, right?
Well, I definitely don't believe in an eternal hell, no.
I prefer to think of myself more as a scholar of religious studies, by the way, than a theologian—and there are a lot of people who would prefer I call myself that, as well.
But yeah, the book is about Christian universalism—about not only its history, but its logic. Principally, it's a philosophical argument that's negative in form. I'm afraid I don't know that it brings good news, but the claim it does make is that the only way [classical Christian claims] can be coherent is in the form of one of the classical universalist construals. It's a somewhat more minimal claim.
But you're a Christian, so presumably you do believe they're coherent?
Well, I believe in certain configurations they're coherent, yes.
Or Gregory of Nyssa's, Issac of Nineveh's—there's a long tradition there. That doesn't mean that I'm an apologist for the Christian religion in whatever form it takes. I think there are Christian truths, and there's quite a lot of nonsense that goes under the name of Christianity. So it's not an apologetic project for me.
Although you did write a book called Atheist Delusions, which presumably took issue with the New Atheists?
Not really my title, incidentally. They're mentioned at the beginning and at the end. Actually, the book that deals more specifically with the New Atheism was called The Experience of God. I have very little patience for the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism as they were then.
It's, I think, a fad that has more or less passed anyway. There are more interesting arguments to be had between religious believers and unbelievers and everything in between. I think that was a period of extraordinary crudity in public discourse on these matters. Kind of glad it's passed.
I'm happy to put that behind us.
On justsecurity.org, Rebecca Hamilton, a foreign-correspondent-turned-law-professor, writes about the current state of America as it might be rendered by a journalist from another country. Her goal is to challenge, as she puts it in a preface, “the assumed inevitability of an enduring democracy.”
The Washington Post reports that the easing of lockdown in Italy and other European countries has brought less covid contagion than feared. Possible explanations include the effects of summer heat on the virus and “enduring behavioral changes, from hand-washing to mask-wearing.”
In Foreign Policy, Colum Lynch reports that, though Joe Biden seems to be moving the Democratic party to the left on domestic policy, there are no signs of such movement in the realm of foreign policy. To many progressives, Lynch writes, “Biden appears to be a man of the past: an unapologetic champion of American exceptionalism. He backed the resolution authorizing the Iraq War, remains committed to waging an open-ended global war on terrorism with drones and special forces, refuses to condition military aid to Israel to secure its commitment to a Palestinian state, and demonstrates little interest in curbing a U.S. defense budget that has swelled by more than $100 billion under Donald Trump’s presidency.” Plus he’s been “portraying himself as tougher on China than Trump.”
Tricycle has posted a statement about Buddhism and racial justice, along with a reading list of related pieces from the magazine’s archive. One of the pieces is by Rhonda Magee, author of The Inner Work of Racial Justice, whom I interviewed on The Wright Show last year.
In the Washington Post, social scientists Lara Putnam, Erica Chenoweth, and Jeremy Pressman analyze the George Floyd protests, quantifying their unprecedented combination of scale and duration and noting other distinctive characteristics.
If you’ve been waiting for a long and somewhat technical argument that the coronavirus may indeed have originally escaped from a Chinese virology lab, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has got you covered. Which gives me the chance to say two things: (1) This question strikes me as less momentous than many people suggest. Claims that the virus was genetically engineered as a bioweapon have now been pretty definitively dismissed, so the remaining question is whether well-intentioned research meant to prevent future epidemics wound up backfiring. If it did that’s of course worth knowing, but at some level the takehome lesson is the same as in the scenario where the virus entered humans via a “wet market.” Either way there was a critical regulatory failure by the Chinese government that needs to be addressed. (2) If there was indeed a regulatory failure at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, then the Trump administration may well be partly to blame, as I explained in a piece in this newsletter earlier this year.
In The New Atlantis, David Kordahl reviews—with a fair amount of clarity, as these things go— two books about quantum physics, one by physicist and popularizer Sean Carroll and the other by theoretical physicist Lee Smolin. One book buys the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum physics, and the other book says such plausibility-stretching interpretations are among the reasons to think quantum physics itself is flawed.