Kicking the Trump habit
The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and its carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living... It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.
—Chris Hedges, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning
I got my first Trump withdrawal symptom a few weeks ago. It happened while I was listening to Steve Bannon’s podcast—which, I know, I know, I probably shouldn’t spend my time doing, but then again haven’t the last four years been, among other things, a story of almost all of us using media and social media in very suboptimal ways?
Anyway, Bannon’s podcast had become a kind of nerve center for the effort to overturn the results of the presidential election. So I was in the habit of tuning in to monitor the state of play—and also, I admit, because I find Bannon’s seedy charisma fascinating. You can say a lot of bad things about Bannon—that he’s dishonest, that he’s amoral, that his grooming habits could use an upgrade—but you can’t say he’s not a great demagogue.
Each day, in rants that are broadcast not just via YouTube and podcast apps but on hard-right media outlets like Newsmax TV, he rallies his grassroots army (”the deplorables,” he lovingly calls them), exuding boundless confidence in victory against the enemy—the “globalists,” the Democrats (“the party of Davos”), the “Biden crime family,” and so on.
So I was listening to the podcast one day and for a moment Bannon’s spirits seemed to sag, as if the accumulated weight of the legal and political setbacks suffered by the stop-the-steal movement had finally sunk in. Bannon uttered his ritual guarantee of victory—“We got this”—but for the first time it seemed to refer not to Trump’s victory in this election but to the eventual triumph of the movement Trump represents.
Or maybe I was reading too much into it. Certainly Bannon quickly regained his verve; he continues to profess confidence that Trump will be a two-term president. But in that fleeting moment of flagging Bannon energy, I suddenly imagined a day—soon, God willing—when the Trump presidency would be in the rear-view mirror.
My first reaction was relief. Then came the symptom.
A slightly condensed version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Outlook section of the Washington Post.
Recently Michael McFaul, ambassador to Russia under President Obama, expressed puzzlement about a term he had been hearing—a label adopted by some people on the left who aren’t happy with the emerging outlines of the Biden administration. “In the debate about the future Biden foreign policy I’m seeing people self-identify as ‘progressive realists’,” he tweeted.
This term bothered McFaul. After all, in foreign policy circles, “realism” has long signified a strict focus on national interest, with little regard for the welfare of people abroad. The famously pitiless Henry Kissinger called himself a realist. Maybe McFaul had Kissinger in mind when he lamented the “deaths and horrific repression” that past realists had countenanced and then asked plaintively, “Where are the progressive idealists?"
Speaking as a progressive realist, let me first say that the answer to that question is easy. “Progressive idealists” are everywhere!
If by that term you mean left-of-center people who wax idealistic about America’s global mission—who think our foreign policy should emphasize spreading democracy and defending human rights abroad—then “progressive idealists” pervade liberal foreign policy circles and will be running the show in a Biden administration. Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s picks for secretary of state and national security adviser, are progressive idealists.
That’s the problem. Though McFaul considers realism an ideology with blood on its hands—and God knows Kissinger has plenty of blood on his—the fact is that in recent years naive idealism has been responsible for much death and suffering and dislocation. And a lot of that happened on the watch of the Obama administration, where Blinken and Sullivan played important roles; both did stints as Vice President Biden’s national security adviser and both had high-level state department jobs.
So, with another round of progressive idealist foreign policy apparently on the way, it’s worth reviewing the previous round and seeing how things might have been different had realists been in charge. What follows are four basic principles of progressive realism along with examples of their violation by Blinken and Sullivan and the Obama team generally. Whether or not this exercise inspires any defections from the idealist to the realist camp, I hope it will inspire people like McFaul to revisit their assumptions about the moral superiority of idealism.
Apparently nice guys don’t really finish last. In Psyche, psychologists Craig Neumann and Scott Barry Kaufman write that people with “dark” personality traits like Machiavellianism have disproportionately poor job performance and heightened risk of violent death, while those with “light” personality traits like empathy report greater happiness and self-esteem. But there’s good news for those of us with a mean streak: Neumann and Kaufman found that “light” traits can be, and often are, learned over time. “Our research, and studies of our closest relatives, nonhuman primates, both show that moral behavior can emerge and change across development—in large part through cooperative social interactions,” they write. “Thus, by embracing and trusting social connections, we can progress toward a light personality trait profile—a pathway that appears to lead to healthy self-actualization and even transcendence.”
In the New York Times, Neal K. Katyal and John Monsky look at one of Trump’s last-gasp hopes for reversing the results of the election: the possibility that Vice President Pence could on Jan. 6 abuse his role as presiding officer at the counting of the electoral votes by Congress.
In the Kausfiles newsletter, Mickey Kaus, gets alarmed by news that covid vaccine distribution may be guided by “social justice” criteria. In this scenario, “essential workers” would—because many of them are people of color—get vaccinated ahead of senior citizens, a whiter demographic. Kaus attributes this proposal to Wokism and argues that Joe Biden could and should put Wokists in their place.
In Wired, Lily Hay Newman writes about the growing frequency and success of ransomware attacks in 2020 and the chances of this trend continuing in 2021.
In the American Conservative, Blaise Malley argues that Biden’s foreign policy won’t be as far left as his domestic policies and offers a theory as to why: many Democrats reflexively oppose policies championed by Trump, and Trump’s foreign policy instincts often align with those of anti-war progressives. “Even if advocating the reverse of what Trump has done means espousing centrist, liberal interventionist or neo-conservative approaches, many opponents of the outgoing president are likely to do so,” Malley writes. “Biden can revert to a conventional form of foreign policy precisely because he can couch it as the opposite of Trump.”
A handful of reporters got famous by battling the Trump Administration. Will they maintain their combative stance after Biden enters office? In the Atlantic, McKay Coppins explores the incentive structure that shapes reporting about presidents.
Pope Francis took aim at tribalism with his recent encyclical letter “Fratelli Tutti." In Commonweal, William T. Cavanaugh reflects on the subtle radicalism of the document’s emphasis on “fraternal love,” which Francis holds up as a response to divisions sown by cynical leaders and neoliberal economic policies. The kind of love the pope has in mind, writes Cavanaugh, involves interaction and even friendship across lines of racial and economic segregation. “Pope Francis is calling us to create different kinds of spaces—economic, political, and social—where we can encounter one another face to face, where we can regard each other as children of the same God and begin the difficult journey of love.”
In Responsible Statecraft, Annelle Sheline takes a dim view of the recently announced deal that will have Morocco normalize relations with Israel in exchange for US recognition of Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara. Sheline argues that the deal not only flouts international law but threatens global food security. Still, she doubts that Biden will roll back the decision. “Although the Biden administration may be less captured by pro-Israel interests than Trump, Anthony Blinken’s State Department will not wish to re-open the issue and risk undermining a normalization agreement with Israel.”
The New Yorker dedicates most of its latest issue to "The Plague Year," a sprawling piece by Lawrence Wright that tracks epidemiological, political, social, and personal efforts to combat covid.