Who Paved the Way for Trump?

It was not Jerry Falwell (or his son).

It was the gatekeepers who decided gates were simply mental constructions and who celebrated those who ran with the new freedom.

Want to know where fake news came from? Looks like it was Harvard not Liberty University (thanks to one of our many southern correspondents):

Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.

For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power.

These ideas animate the work of influential thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, and they’ve become axiomatic for many scholars in literary studies, cultural anthropology and sociology.

From these premises, philosophers and theorists have derived a number of related insights. One is that facts are socially constructed. People who produce facts — scientists, reporters, witnesses — do so from a particular social position (maybe they’re white, male and live in America) that influences how they perceive, interpret and judge the world. They rely on non-neutral methods (microscopes, cameras, eyeballs) and use non-neutral symbols (words, numbers, images) to communicate facts to people who receive, interpret and deploy them from their own social positions.

Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.

Casey Williams argues that the populist right has abused postmodernism.

The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon.

One might object that Trump’s disregard for the truth is nothing new. American presidents have always twisted facts to fit their agenda and have always dismissed truths that threatened to sink them. Even George Washington’s great claim to honesty — that he ’fessed up to felling a cherry tree — was a deception. One could also argue that Trump is more Machiavellian than Foucauldian and that he doesn’t actually believe what he says: He propagates misinformation strategically, to excite his base and smear his opponents.

Not to be missed is what happens when other celebrities flout conventions. Then it becomes art and poignant. And so Lena Dunham is prescient (while Trump is so ordinary when he is not despicable):

The romance between this newspaper and the HBO show “Girls” is somewhat legendary. Between its debut in 2012 and its finale last Sunday, according to some exhaustive data journalism from The Awl, The New York Times published 37 articles about the show, its fans, its creator and star, Lena Dunham, plus her co-stars’ clothes and paintings and workout routines and exotic pets.

Except, fact-check: I made up the exotic pets, and The Awl’s list unaccountably failed to include my own contribution to The Times’s Dunham-mania, a love letter to the show’s flirtations with cultural reaction.

Was some of this coverage excessive? Well, let’s concede that the ratio of thinkpieces (all over the web, not just in this newspaper) to actual viewers was considerably higher for “Girls” than for, say, “Game of Thrones.” Let’s concede that the media loved to talk about the show in part because it was set among young white people in Brooklyn, a demographic just possibly overrepresented among the people who write about pop culture for a living. Let’s concede that Dunham’s peculiar role in electoral politics, as one of the most visible and, um, creative millennial-generation surrogates for Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton, played some role in the press’s fascination with her show.

But now that we have the show in full, I think the scale of coverage actually holds up quite well — my own small part in it very much included. Indeed, I suspect that “Girls” will be remembered as the most interesting and important television show of the years in which it ran, to which cultural critics will inevitably return when they argue about art and society in the now-vanished era of Obama.

I know it’s hard to seem to be upholding the status quo. Baby boomers would rather have an edge, be a little deviant, and resist being part of the establishment.

But at some point you grow up, or you find no rationale for opposing a man (now president) who has been simply floating along with the decline of standards.

Those Also Were the Days

Damon Linker remembers those crazies times under President Obama:

As Delmore Schwartz once joked, sometimes paranoids have real enemies, and the paranoid-in-chief occupying the Oval Office has some very real and very powerful enemies.

Anyone who denies this needs to go back and reread the most important (and unfairly maligned) magazine feature written last year: David Samuels’ 9,500-word New York Times Magazine profile of Obama administration senior staffer Ben Rhodes. Journalists hated the piece, but for reasons so self-serving that it’s hard to believe anyone took the objections seriously. (My colleague Noah Millman noted as much shortly after the essay appeared.)

Samuels portrays (and quotes) Rhodes as someone who views both reporters (“they literally know nothing”) and Washington’s foreign policy establishment (Rhodes calls it “The Blob”) with utter contempt. It’s that contempt that Rhodes uses to justify the propaganda shop he ran out of the Obama White House, subtly but significantly manipulating the story that the mainstream media told about the Iran nuclear deal by selectively and repeatedly leaking tiny bits of information to dozens of journalists who wove those bits of micro-spin into countless tweets and stories over the course of many months. The end result was a pro-Iran deal conventional wisdom — a pointillistic picture of reality composed entirely of colorful dots painted by Rhodes and his staff with the knowledge and support of the president.

While trying to get the Iran deal approved, Rhodes was in the position of needing to use journalists to defeat The Blob, which viewed with extreme skepticism (if not outright hostility) the Obama administration’s efforts to reach a nuclear accord with Tehran. But once Donald Trump won the presidency, old opponents found themselves firmly on the same side. Rhodes and his former boss, the bipartisan foreign policy establishment, and the nameless and faceless bureaucrats who staff the executive branch agencies and departments that make up the “intelligence community.” All of them were now united in standing against a president who had vowed to break far more radically from the established Washington consensus than Obama ever dreamed of doing.

What makes America great? Remembering sometime.

Rules for Who Gets In Are Complicated

Imagine if the U.S. government used for immigration policy Notre Dame’s reasons for not inviting President Trump:

The decision by the University of Notre Dame to invite Vice President Mike Pence to be this year’s graduation speaker and recipient of an honorary degree was surely not made lightly. The last six presidents have all been invited to the school’s commencement exercises, so the decision to invite someone other than President Donald Trump represents a change from the norm. And that is precisely why it was the correct decision.

The first thing to remember about the decision is that it affects not only the Indiana university’s standing, but the actual students whose families and friends will be gathering that day. There were some protests eight years ago, when newly inaugurated President Barack Obama attended the commencement exercises, but those protests were mostly on the internet and at the margins. The day itself was not ruined for the graduates.

Can anyone really think that Trump’s presence would not elicit a different kind of protest? Is it not likely that the protests would be so vociferous and widespread that the day would be marred for the students who should be the focus of the day?

I am sure that consideration weighed heavily on the decision-making process, which is not to say Notre Dame is likely to award a heckler’s veto to anyone. It is a mere acknowledgement that a man for whom a central campaign theme was the demonization of other people elicits a kind of visceral response, not because some people are too politically correct or thin-skinned, but because that visceral response is what Trump was after. He stoked the flames and cannot now wonder that people recoiled from the prospect of being burned.

Lots can go wrong if you invite POTUS. Nothing can go wrong with open borders?

But don’t forget welcoming the stranger.

Welcome the stranger.

Trump is strange.

Welcome Trump.

How to Tell the Difference between Turkey and the U.S.

You don’t read about President Erdogan in the pages of Washington Post, New York Times, or New Yorker:

As Turkey heads toward a constitutional referendum designed to grant its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan even greater powers, the polls predict a neck-and-neck race.

That doesn’t mean their chances are equal. While the April vote is likely to be free, whether it will be fair — given rising repression of political dissent and the ongoing state of emergency — is another question.

Take the case of İrfan Değirmenci, a well-known news anchor for Kanal D, who explained his opposition to the proposed changes in a series of tweets earlier this month. “No to the one who views scientists, artists, writers, cartoonists, students, workers, farmers, miners, journalists and all who do not obey as the enemy,” he wrote.

He was promptly fired.

Değirmenci’s dismissal has heightened fears among No campaigners that those who oppose the new constitution will be subject to threats and intimidation ahead of the referendum on April 16.

“A lot of people are risking their careers and their future by openly and publicly campaigning for No,” said İlhan Tanir, a Turkish columnist and analyst based in Washington. “There is nothing fair about this.”

Government supporters face no such risk: While Kanal D claimed Değirmenci had been let go for violating the media group’s neutrality rule, Yes supporters have been free to air their views in the pages of Hürriyet, which belongs to the same group.

Hurriyet itself — a newspaper that positions itself as neutral — has muted critical voices: Its editors last week scrapped an interview with Orhan Pamuk, in which the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish novelist explained his reasons for voting No.

So why do elite journalists cover the Trump administration as if we’re living in the television series, Man in the High Castle. Perhaps because they believe in American innocence as much as Jerry Falwell, Jr.

What’s the Difference between a Pro-Refugee Evangelical (Tim Keller) and a Democrat (Dianne Feinstein)?

Short answer: neither quotes the Bible.

Notice for instance the parallels among the National Association of Evangelicals, Ed Stetzer, Evangelical leaders (among them Tim Keller), and the Democrats.

The NAE:

“Christians and churches have been welcoming refugees for 2,000 years, and evangelicals are committed to continue this biblical mission. Thousands of U.S. evangelicals and their churches have welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees over the past 40 years through World Relief and other federally approved resettlement agencies. We don’t want to stop now,” NAE President Leith Anderson said.

The Trump administration’s plans to make severe cuts to the admission of refugees are alarming. We call on President Trump to declare his support for the continuation of the U.S. refugee resettlement program, which is critical at a time when the world faces a significant refugee crisis.

Ed Stetzer:

Scott Arbeiter, president of World Relief, says it this way: “The decision to restrict all entry of refugees and other immigrants … contradicts the American tradition of welcoming families who come to the United States to start their lives again in safety and dignity. The American people — most of whom can trace their own families’ stories through a similar immigrant journey in search of freedom — are a hospitable people.”

He’s right. But, it’s not just because we are Americans. It’s because we are Christians.

God’s people should be the first ones to open their arms to refugees. We should welcome them and do what Christians, in your church and mine, have been doing a long time — showing and sharing the love of Jesus with them.

Tim Keller et al:

As Christians, we have a historic call expressed over two thousand years, to serve the suffering. We cannot abandon this call now. We live in a dangerous world and affirm the crucial role of government in protecting us from harm and in setting the terms on refugee admissions. However, compassion and security can coexist, as they have for decades. For the persecuted and suffering, every day matters; every delay is a crushing blow to hope.

Since the inception of the refugee resettlement program, thousands of local churches throughout the country have played a role in welcoming refugees of all religious backgrounds. Ministries to newly arrived refugees are ready, and desire to receive many thousands more people than would be allowed under the new executive order.

The Democratic Party (according to Damon Linker):

Many liberals argue that refugees are among the most vulnerable people on Earth and so must be welcomed with open arms. That forcing undocumented immigrants to leave the country is gratuitously cruel, violates their rights, and so justifies municipalities flouting federal law by turning themselves into “sanctuary cities.” That banning entry to refugees or immigrants not yet within the United States can violate their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. And that the desire to restrict immigration is invariably an expression of xenophobia, racism, and other forms of irrational animus and so morally (and perhaps constitutionally) indefensible.

All of these claims are, at bottom, expressions of a fundamentally anti-political humanitarian ideology that is unlikely to fare well in the next presidential election. Democrats desperately need to confront the vulnerabilities of this position and stake out a more defensible and pragmatic one if they hope to push back against Trump’s populist-nationalist message in upcoming years.

Of course, evangelicals don’t need to worry about running for election (though the likes of Russell Moore does need to worry about ministry dollars going somewhere other than the Southern Baptist cooperative program). But evangelicals who live in the United States may want to think (with help from Linker) about how to love their actual neighbors who live within U.S. borders (Walter didn’t see his buddies die face down in ‘Nam for open borders):

Many Americans believe that their constitution presumes or appeals to certain timeless, universal moral truths that apply to all human beings. But the U.S. Constitution itself — like the constitutions, fundamental laws, and commonly affirmed norms and rules of all political communities — is nonetheless instantiated in a particular place, rooted in a particular tradition. It also pertains and applies only to people who are members of the political community known as the United States of America.

Those who are members of this community are known as American citizens. They get a say in what laws get passed and how they get enforced. Those who are not members of this community — who are not citizens — don’t get such a say. The community is perfectly within its rights to decide which and how many of these outsiders will be allowed to visit the country, how long they will be allowed to stay, when they will need to go, and how many, if any, will be permitted to join the community permanently by becoming citizens.

This is one of the most elemental acts of politics: the community deciding who to admit and on what terms. To treat this act as somehow morally illegitimate is to treat politics as such as morally illegitimate.

In other words, evangelicals think like 1kers, as if the U.S. is a Christian community. Imagine welcoming non-Christians into fellowship in a Christian congregation. What sense does that make? So why should citizens of the United States act as if they are the United Nations of the World. As Linker says, it’s a complicated question how Americans decide what to do with outsiders:

Note that nothing I’ve said tells us anything about how many immigrants or refugees the political community of the United States should welcome at any given moment of history, or what criteria should be used to make this determination. I generally favor liberal immigration policies; many Trump voters take a very different view. The point, as Josh Barro recently argued in an important column, is that the policy debate needs to be made in terms of the good of the political community as a whole and in its parts, not in terms of abstract, extra-political moral duties owed to prospective newcomers. A political community exists in large part to benefit itself — to advance the common good of its citizens. There’s nothing shameful in that. It’s to a considerable extent what politics is.

And don’t forget, if godless Democrats and progressive evangelicals agree that Jesus is on the side of refugees, w-w has failed.

The Captain Renault GIF

How can you be shocked, shocked to find injustice going on in America after Ferguson (film noir anyone?)? And yet, people like Patricia McGuire of Trinity Washington University act as if the country has not been having a conversation about having a conversation about race for the past two plus years:

“We Americans study the history of tyranny and exclaim, ‘That’s terrible, but it would not happen here!’ as we congratulate ourselves on the robust state of our democracy. The experience of the last few months now exposes this once-confident boast as terribly naive and perhaps even dangerous as a new administration indulges in a remarkable torrent of false and misleading statements as a basis for policy and action,” she wrote. “The gravest lie we are grappling with at the present moment is the Trump Administration’s cruel and unreasonable war on immigrants — mostly people who are black and brown, and Muslim — Mexicans and refugees from central America, Syrian refugees, people from certain countries in the Middle East and Africa including Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Somalia.”

Black lives mattered before Trump?

This is why we worry about those who use the present to turn history into morality plays. What history does best is teach students we’ve been here before, all is vanity. Only Whig historians believe in progress and then are surprised when their narratives let them down.

But We Already Have Ethics Experts

Several weeks ago while listening to NPR I heard a phrase I had not encountered before — ethics experts. These were people with expertise to comment on the conflict of interests surrounding the newly elected President Trump (as if the press needs to hind behind such expertise). This is part of the story in particular:

We are continuing our coverage of the Trump administration’s executive orders implementing a permanent ban on those coming from Syria and a temporary ban of citizens coming from six additional Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Sudan.

Now, one aspect of the new policy that has drawn notice are countries that are not on the list, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. And those are the countries of origin of a number of people who carried out terrorist attacks in the U.S. starting with September 11, 2001. Those countries also happen to be places where President Trump and his family have business interests.

That’s one reason ethics experts continue to raise questions about how President Trump is addressing potential conflicts or even the appearance of them.

I also noticed that one of the experts to which the reporters turned was — wait for it — formerly in the Obama administration:

One of them, for example, spoke with NPR. That’s Norm Eisen. He’s a former ethics adviser to President Obama, and he’s a fellow now at Brookings Institution. He says that it looks to him like Trump was singling out countries that did not pay him tribute. That was his words.

If Rush Limbaugh brought on ethics experts to comment on Nancy Pelosi, would anyone inside the editorial offices of NPR think such expertise credible?

But we are surrounded now by ethical expertise (though it seems to be fairly easy to come by — a general rather than expert sense).

But ethics experts say the broader conflict between the White House and Nordstrom is more worrisome, raising questions about whether the United States is entering a new environment in which presidents use government to steer money to their inner circles.

Here’s another:

Outside ethics experts say Trump’s conflicts-of-interest plan does almost nothing to clear up problems that could arise during his presidency. Walter Shaub, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, called the plan “meaningless.” Norm Eisen, who served as an ethics attorney under President Obama, told Mother Jones that Trump’s plan “falls short in every respect.”

And yet, just six months ago, according to a Google word search, ethics experts were not so easy to come by (even in the midst of all the allegations swirling around both the Clinton and Trump campaigns). One story wondered about ethical food:

Andrew Chignell, a philosophy professor at Cornell University who teaches an ethics in eating course each spring, had a change of heart when he embraced a vegan diet five years ago. But he still identifies as more of a flexitarian when he’s been invited to someone’s home for a meal.

Another commented on the ethics of a judge:

A controversial Nashville judge who retroactively signed orders committing dozens of people to mental health institutions violated ethics rules by doing so, according to a judicial expert’s opinion.

Another link led to the defense of such a thing as an ethics expert:

Within my sub-genre of philosophy – practical ethics – the suspicion of public engagement has a more specific cause. It’s often asserted that moral philosophers can’t claim expertize in ethics in the same way a chemist, for example, can be an expert on a molecule.

That’s a concern that puzzles me. Certainly there’s some evidence – from the UC Riverside philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel – that those who write about and teach courses in ethics are no more ethical than anybody else. And it’s true that specializing and so commanding authority in trichloro-2-methyl-2-propanol is disanalogous in various ways to being an authority in some corner of practical ethics – not least in how this expertize can be tested.

Still, I want to defend the expertize of moral philosophers, to maintain that their views in their chosen field merit respect and at least a degree of deference.

But now, after the Trump victory, ethics experts are easy to find.

So when John Fea says that times such as these call for the special work of historians, I’m left wondering what ethical work is left to do once every journalist and editor and academic and Hollywood celebrity has already taken a number to condemn Trump again:

Historians must remind us, in this age of Donald Trump, that we as a nation have not always lived up to our highest ideals. Their work can remind us that we have failed in the past and encourage us, perhaps this time around, to follow our better angels.

But most importantly, historians offer ways of thinking about the world that we desperately need right now. History teachers challenge students to make evidence-based arguments. They spend time showing students how to write footnotes and cite sources correctly because they do not want them to speak or write in public without research to support their conclusions. They counter “fake news” with facts.

In this regard they teach the nation’s young people how not to be like Donald Trump.

Is the argument for not living like Trump based on evidence or on ethics? Were historians worried about Trump before becoming president? Did they condemn billionaires, real estate developers, adulterers, divorcees, outer borough New Yorkers? Now, when some of the coarser aspects of American society attach themselves to the presidency — as if for the first time — we need historians to teach us how not to be like Trump?

I get it. My friend John finds Donald Trump repellent. (Is that ethical for a Christian who is called to love his enemy? Think Jesus and Zacchaeus.) But again, why gussy it up in the aura of academic expertise? Speak truth to power as a citizen. Do it as a Christian. But as a historian do remember that ethics is a different academic discipline that seldom leaves history as an unfamiliar territory. Moral indignation renders the past something to be condemned for not meeting now’s standards.