An American-Politics Junkie in China

GUANGZHOU, CHINA — Inside a cramped dorm room on the campus of South China University of Technology, Yin Hao leads an operation to decode American politics.

The 29-year-old engineering student records every Sunday news show, listens to podcasts from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow as he walks to work, and scours Mike Allen’s “Playbook,” a DC-insidery newsletter for Politico. He knows more about the 2016 presidential race than many Americans.

Yin is a rare breed: a politics junkie and electoral horserace-watcher in a one-party state, where a small group of officials select the nation’s leader and the government severely restricts the press. The political process that transfixes Yin is not that of his own country, but that of someone else’s. He leads a team of hobbyists who translate and add Chinese subtitles to videos of U.S. campaign events, then distribute them via social media to a small, obsessive group of Chinese viewers.

“I have the freedom to talk about American politics,” Yin said, “so I want to use it.” Following the State of the Union address on Tuesday, he noted the two-party bickering that characterizes Washington. President Barack “Obama’s tone was a little more optimistic,” he said. “That makes for a very strange contrast to the GOP rhetoric, [which is] very much danger and terrorism.”

The Democracy Report

The size of Yin’s group varies—up to about 20 people—as do the motivations of his colleagues and audience. Some just want to laugh at America’s unusual cast of presidential candidates; others seek insight into an election that could reshape the world’s most crucial bilateral relationship.

It’s difficult to measure Yin’s audience. He boasts nearly 34,000 followers on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. Some of his translations show up on video-sharing platforms, and others appear on Chinese news sites. But much of China still hasn’t heard of the Republicans’ Iowa front-runner Ted Cruz, the self-described socialist Bernie Sanders, or even the inimitable real-estate magnate Donald Trump.

That may change. Many of the candidates have already turned China into an attack theme. Trump accused the communist country of manipulating its currency and stealing American jobs. New Jersey governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie declared that he would fly Air Force One over disputed islands in the South China Sea, and counter Chinese hacking attempts with “cyberwarfare like they have never seen it before.” Another Republican contender, Carly Fiorina, proclaimed China “a rising adversary,” and on the Democratic side Hillary Clinton blasted the country on human-rights issues, calling some of its actions “inexcusable.”

Chinese officials have largely avoided commenting on the rhetoric, even if they do keep track. An op-ed in the Global Times, a state-run newspaper, said Trump’s initial popularity was “based on his big mouth” and chided Clinton for using the same kinds of “ignominious shenanigans” Trump was employing toward China.

“What they say in campaigns is one thing,” said Song Yuhang, an international news editor at a Chinese media outlet. “If elected into office, they will become more realistic.”

Either way, the election’s outcome will impact China. Writing subtitles is as close as Yin gets to participating in a political process where candidates woo the public for votes and the media reports on every move. His efforts underscore the gulf between the system he observes and the one he inhabits—the first where potential leaders spend millions (or billions) attacking each other, and the second where vocal competition among politicians almost never occurs in public, because the public lacks any real voice.

When I met him in December, Yin wanted details about my past experience as a Washington reporter covering national politics. How do journalists get information from the White House? Why do presidential candidates visit small towns and shake hands? What purpose do the Iowa caucuses really serve? Had I met Chuck Todd?

“U.S. elections are like Real Housewives without throwing wine or slapping each other in the face,” Yin said. “It’s pretty much the same, just a verbal slap.”

Yin Hao (Jessica Meyer)

It’s somewhat fitting that Yin developed an interest in America’s political system through its entertainment value, largely by watching The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. (Chinese people have access to little criticism of their own country, but can easily download swipes at America.)

Yin only started campaign-related translations last spring—in the midst of a doctoral thesis on 3D printing—when Sanders announced his candidacy and it felt to Yin like the race had officially begun. Now he spends most of his free time, up to five hours a day, curating clips from political speeches to campaign commercials. With limited hours and reams of material, he chooses which interviews and rallies merit translations. Yin, even unintentionally, acts as a filter for the information his fans view.

While he often works alone, Yin realized this fall that he needed assistance to tackle debates. China has in recent years seen the emergence of a volunteer translator subculture—some members of which operate in a gray area of copyright legality. Many provide Chinese subtitles for television shows like Game of Thrones and House of Cards on the Internet. Yin came across an informal online subtitle group that focused on documentaries, joined it, and recruited some of its members to concentrate on U.S. politics.

One morning in November, Yin was among a half-dozen or so people who started translating the first 40 minutes of a Democratic debate, carefully matching time sequences and throwing in subtitles. When they finished, Yin put the video on Weibo and went to bed. The group interacted online; most have never met. Its members come and go, but Yin’s goal remains the same.    

“I want to create a place so everyone can watch the original stuff,” he said during a late dim sum breakfast next to the campus’s emerald lake. “So you can judge for yourself.”  

Yin found a gem in Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who appealed to viewers that might not otherwise have taken to American presidential politics, because he appeared to bridge entertainment and news. Yin echoed his mother’s sentiment to me: “I am now watching an American TV show called Election.”

Guo Xiaohui, a former car importer and translator turned standup comic, put it more bluntly.

“This election has become really weird,” he said. “Look at the founding fathers. It’s reverse evolution from Thomas Jefferson to Donald Trump.”

Part of Trump’s draw is simple fascination in a country where politicians are rarely flamboyant and few show public displays of emotion. Chen Yue, who sometimes works on translations with Yin, came up with the now-popular Chinese nickname for Trump: chuang po, or “broken bed.” (The phrase pops up all over social media.) A play on the tones of Trump’s Chinese name, the term suggests shoddy construction. Some interpret it sexually—not in a positive way.

“I just wanted to make a funny name for him to describe that his hotel isn’t good,” Chen, an amicable Beijing pharmacist, explained. Chen started subtitling because she wanted a way to practice her English and loved Jon Stewart’s ability to poke fun at politics. “Perhaps because we don’t have Facebook or Twitter we have the feeling that we want to see more of the world,” she said of those in her country who watch and create videos on American politics. Both social networks are blocked in China.

Yin himself is an unlikely practitioner. He grew up in an industrial town in Northwest China, where he frequently skipped English classes. He chose Germany for his master’s degree and studied communication technology. His cubicle at the university in Guangzhou holds a 3D banana he printed, and a picture of his mother.

Watching the ups and downs of U.S. campaigns—who’s “winning” in the polls at any given moment, who won the last debate—is “like watching a sport,” he said. “Someone wins, someone loses, and after a few news cycles, everyone forgets.”

In my discussions with him, Yin didn’t dwell on comparisons between the American and Chinese systems. And yet he operates in a world that constantly reminds him of the difference. Censors last year removed from Weibo a speech he translated by Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio that pummeled China’s human-rights record. Certain phrases—“enough is enough,” “Glass-Steagall Act,” or “feel the Bern”—just don’t translate. He stumbles over tax-code discussions and linguistic nuances, like the difference between “rival” and “enemy.” The influx of money into American elections, Yin said, looks to some like “open bribery.”

But Yin keeps trying to makes sense of America’s presidential race and how the country chronicles it. He invoked the Chinese Communist Party motto of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to describe what he’s witnessing from half a world away. “It’s American democracy with American characteristics.”

Why Can’t a Modern President Say, ‘The Only Thing We Have to Fear … ’?

In 1933 the newly inaugurated FDR said, Fear is the enemy. Today’s politicians have a harder time getting that message across. (Wikipedia)

A week ago at this time I was still typing up notes from a two-hour “off-the-record” interview that President Obama held at the White House with several magazine and newspaper writers, including three from The Atlantic: Peter Beinart, Jeffrey Goldberg, and me. I put “off the record” in quotes because things a president says in front of more than two people rarely stay secret very long. Also, part of the White House’s hope was obviously to expose this group to the president’s rationale. And I say “still typing up notes” because attendees were not allowed to bring recording devices other than notepads to the session. (For why it is worth going, despite off-the-record ground rules, see explanation* after the jump.)

Indeed not long after the session, the New York Times ran two articles (one, two) by a reporter not at the session about what Obama said there, and my friend David Ignatius of the WaPo, who was there, did two columns (one, two) reflecting what Obama must be thinking, although not directly attributing anything to him.

In public and in private, Obama likes to say, “I’m a pretty consistent guy.” And he is. In my limited experience, the gap between the cases he makes on- and off-the record is not very large. (Why, then, bother to go off-the-record? For most public figures, it’s for protection against a single phrase or sentence being taken out of context — although ironically, as explained below, exactly that happened to Obama in this case.)

Through his year-end press conferences, speeches, and on-the-record interviews Obama has been doing two things over and over:  (1) stressing the long view, which I’ve been calling the “chessmaster” perspective, on just about any issue, from domestic politics to the range of problems the nation deals with overseas, and (2) wrestling with the balance between seeming adequately aware of the fear generated by terror attacks in Paris or San Bernardino, and not doing the terrorists’ work by hyping that fear.Most of what is on my scrawled-out notepad for last week’s session is consistent with what everyone has heard him say on those two recurring themes.

Today’s update: readers on whether Obama is being strategically accurate, or instead self-deluding, in presenting his chessmaster-style “long view” perspective. Let’s start with an area where he seems most visibly to have failed: the rout of his fellow Democrats from Senate and House seats, plus governorships and state legislatures, during this time in the White House. This message comes from a poli-sci academic whose dissertation is on exactly this topic:

[That Obama’s party is in a weaker position now than in 2008] is a truism that I think runs the risk of being somewhat myopic. The Democratic Party is pretty clearly in a more vulnerable place now than it was eight years ago, though I’m not convinced this should be characterized as weaker.

For decades now Dems have been awaiting their “emerging majority,” based on a tipping point in the nation’s demographics. Obama’s personalistic appeal and organizational sophistication helped speed this process along-at least as a presidential coalition on his behalf. The downside is that it made the Democrats more dependent on a coalition of irregular voters, and likely caused a counter-reaction of further consolidation of older, whiter, yet more consistent voters within the GOP.


As a result, Democrats have been boxed into a broader if more shallow coalition. A lot of veteran pols and operatives (that the media depend on for their narrative on this stuff as there is not tremendous interest in the nuts and bolts of party building by journalists) have expressed frustration over this…. That being said however, few would disagree that the long-term fate of the party rests with Obama’s coalition.


I suppose a case could be made that a slower transition that did not make the party brand quite as toxic toward certain high turnout segments  of the population would have bolstered Democratic short term electoral fortunes- especially in off year elections. But it should be remembered that since the 60’s, the Party’s struggles to maintain its non-white and more liberal factions, along with the white working class, has put it in a consistently tenuous position.


I think there is something to be said for ripping the scab off now, once this coalition could be established on a presidential level, and engaging in the difficult (and likely at times electorally painful) process of consolidating this coalition. This seems especially true given the scope of problems the country faces, and the intransigence of the opposition, likely means that  it will  take large Democratic majorities to pass meaningful legislation on issues like economic inequality, climate change, etc.



Another reader with a different explanation of the party’s weakness:

Someone well to my left told me years ago that he thought Barack Obama was several moves ahead of everybody else on the chessboard. I do tend to agree….


The criticism is fair that the Democratic party is worse off politically than it was when he took office, but is that his fault or the result of too many Democrats who are cowardly and feckless? I’ll cite Senators Mark Udall and Mary Landrieu–oh, that’s right, they were defeated in 2014 after running away from Obama and begging him not to issue an executive order on immigration. How about the Democrats who ran away from health care reform in 2010?


Perhaps it was best expressed by that great philosopher, Stanley Laurel, who said, “You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead.”

And another reader arguing that the weakness is illusory:

It has fascinated me that most of the country has moved very far left since early 2012. It’s been hard to quantify. Maybe I was too young to truly remember what life was like before Obama (I am 25) but I feel like some major changes have happened since the 2012 election cycle.


Occupy Wall Street did not have any clear and immediate victories except perhaps how the 2016 election will discuss income inequality in a way no one would have imagined in 2008. The vocabulary of feminism is completely mainstream. The only real arguments remaining against the ACA are that maybe we need to consider single payer.


Cell phone video has brought the Rodney King anger mainstream. Marriage equality happened almost over night as Americans slowly realized their friends, neighbors and familes were gay.Over-incarceration and drug legalization are now things politicians can speak about. Less politically, Americans now define their eating habits more at Whole Foods, Chipotle and other more “conscious” establishments.


While a good 30% of the country is stubborn and angry, Obama’s re-election leads and reflects that a good portion of the rest of the country is actually ready to live up to the ideals our country was founded on.

These points are obviously related to the arguments that David Frum lays out about the Republicans and Peter Beinart about the Democrats in our new issue. (Subscribe! It’s the perfect gift.)

***

In the Christmas Eve spirit of boundless giving, here is one more assessment. This one bears on the climate of fear / loss / resentment that has played such a part in Trump’s rise, and that Obama has struggled to deal with on both the substantive and the “messaging” levels:

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Trump/GOP America is not afraid. I think we do ourselves a disservice to credit them with actual fear. And it causes us to misunderstand the challenge we face.


GOP America is afraid of Muslims in the way the Klan and mobs of 20s feared blacks and drinkers and Catholics. Islamic terrorism gives people permission to assert dominance over one of the smallest, weakest groups of in our country — and fancy themselves bravely standing up for good by shitting on people.


It’s a win all the way around. It feels good. Lynchers thought themselves carrying out a noble, hard duty. And they took joy in it. The sentiments on display at the debate are precisely the same. GOP voters eat it up because it feels good. They’re not looking for reassurance. They’re demanding indulgence.


This follows up on the social permission that electing Barack Obama gave many Americans to indulge racist instincts and bile they long hid. Can’t be racist, I live in Barack Obama’s America. Inoculation and permission.


I saw this quote in a story about what Americans fear:


“I am very careful taking my small children into large crowds or celebrations – particularly those celebrations of our faith,” said one mother.”


This is obviously horseshit. And even if it’s not, it might as well be. The line between honest delusion and indulgent drama barely exists.


The point of this is that we won’t convince people not to act on the permission that their bullshit “fear” gives them. We have to revoke the permission to enjoy how this makes them feel. And that takes confrontation, not reassurance. We just have to beat them.


That’s our challenge.  

***

* Rules-of-journalism dept: Why, and when, is it worth accepting “off the record” strictures?

Sometimes that makes no sense, and a reporter will say to a source: talk with me on the record, or not at all. In other circumstances, there are things you learn this way that you couldn’t if participants thought that anything they said might be isolated for publication. When it comes to an incumbent president, unless you’re pursuing an active Watergate-style investigation and need on-the-record answers about specific allegations, the chance to someone explain and defend his views in fairly open conversation is presumptively worth taking.

As mentioned earlier, the main thing the White House would hope to gain in specifying “off the record,” that a single phrase or sentence wouldn’t be captured out of context, nonetheless happened this time. Someone relayed the news that the president said he “didn’t watch” or “didn’t watch enough” cable TV news to internalize the widespread panic after the San Bernardino shootings. This became another standalone gaffe. In context it was part of Obama’s discussion of the difficulty of weighing risks rationally, but that in-context version remains off the record. The leaked one-sentence version went public and became another “gaffe.”

***

Christmas Eve greetings to all so inclined, and appropriate holiday wishes in general.

The Wrong Side of ‘the Right Side of History’


Barack Obama has always evinced a fascination with history. He announced his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, recalling Abraham Lincoln. He modeled his own cabinet after Lincoln’s “team of rivals.” He has compared his own accomplishments to his predecessors, and he invited historians to the White House for private conversations about where he might fit within the pantheon of American leaders.

If Obama’s interests run toward history, so does his rhetoric. “It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day,” he said the evening of his first election. Since then, the president has repeatedly deployed a series of phrases—especially “the right side of history” and “the wrong side of history”—that suggest a tortured, idealistic, and ultimately untenable vision of what history is and how it works.

Most recently, during his December 6 Oval Office address on terrorism, Obama said: “My fellow Americans, I am confident we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history.” It’s a phrase Obama loves: He’s used it 15 times, in debates; at synagogues; in weekly radio addresses; at fundraisers. Obama is almost as fond of its converse, “the wrong side of history,” which he has used 13 times; staffers and press secretaries have invoked it a further 16. (These figures are all based on the archives of the American Presidency Project at the University of California Santa Barbara.)

Hope and the Historian



But the expressions are hardly original to Obama. Bill Clinton referred to “the right side of history” 21 times over his time in office, while his staffers added another 15. Clinton also mentioned the “wrong side of history” several times. Ronald Reagan, for his part, wryly resurrected Leon Trotsky’s relegation of the Mensheviks to the “dustbin” or “ash heap of history.” Speaking to the British Parliament in 1982, the Gipper said, “The march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.” Reagan used both translations of Trotsky’s phrase several more times.

Obama’s own fresh contribution to the genre is his invocation of “the arc of history.” It’s his adaptation of an older phrase, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” which was popularized by Martin Luther King Jr. but coined (evidently) a century earlier by Theodore Parker. Obama has mentioned “the arc of history” a dozen times since his election.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it imputes an agency to history that doesn’t exist. Worse, it assumes that progress is unidirectional. But history is not a moral force in and of itself, and it has no set course. Presuming otherwise embraces the dangerous tendency that the great English historian Herbert Butterfield dissected in his 1931 essay, The Whig Interpretation of History. Butterfield was writing about the inclination among certain historians to see the Reformation as a unalloyedly positive force—a secularizing, liberalizing movement that led inexorably to liberal democracy in the 20th century. Butterfield objected that this wasn’t at all how things worked. It was just a retrospective reading.

“The total result of this method is to impose a certain form upon the whole historical story, and to produce a scheme of general history which is bound to converge beautifully upon the present,” he wrote. In fact, “the more we examine the way in which things happen, the more we are driven from the simple to the complex.”

Viewing history from the standpoint of the present not only misrepresented the complexity of events, he wrote, but also risked framing history as a natural progression wherein humans improved over time, going from darker, less intelligent and moral times to an ever-improving present. Butterfield warned against that:

History is all things to all men. She is at the service of good causes and bad. In other words she is a harlot and a hireling, and for this reason she best serves those who suspect her most. Therefore, we must beware even of saying, “History says […]” or “History proves […]”, as though she herself were the oracle; as though indeed history, once she spoken, had put the matter beyond the range of mere human inquiry. Rather we must say to ourselves: “She will lie to us till the very end of the last cross-examination.”

Forget that history doesn’t tell such simple stories and you end up employing this seemingly inexorable progression as evidence that humanity will continue to improve inexorably in the future. Butterfield warned in particular about the temptation to read moral judgments into history, to assume the thrust of events was determined by or proved the validity of reality over alternative possibilities that had not come to pass.

Within a decade of The Whig Interpretation, World War II broke out, providing a visceral example of how the passage of time didn’t necessarily result in progress. But the fallacy recurs occasionally, and Obama seems to have fallen into it. If history is on a trajectory toward perfection, it follows that there can be a right and a wrong side of history. Needless to say, no one wants to believe they are on the wrong side of history, not least a national leader. Because this whiggish view depends on the expectation of progress, liberal politicians are more suspectible to it than their conservative brethren. It corresponds with a Marxian view of human progress, and it seems to have arisen from the progressive press, according to Ben Yagoda’s research. (Finally, proof Obama is a Marxist!)

Conservatives have tended to criticize Obama’s adoption of whiggish themes. Jonah Goldberg wrote last year that although liberals frequently employ “wrong side of history” argument on social issues, Obama had pioneered its use on foreign policy. I’m not so sure that argument holds, having reviewed the ways in which other Democratic politicians have used the phrase. (Take, for example, this case that Goldberg’s National Review colleague Jay Nordlinger brings up: “Travel back to 1984, when Jesse Jackson was running for president. He said that the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, who were self-declared Marxist-Leninists, were ‘on the right side of history.’” Daniel Ortega is back in power in Nicaragua, so perhaps Jackson was right after all.)

Some liberals have resisted the temptation to assume that their side is destined for victory. “Those who think of freedom in this country as one long, broad path leading ever onward and upward are dead damned wrong,” Molly Ivins wrote in 1993. “Many a time freedom has been rolled back—and always for the same sorry reason: fear.”

Meanwhile, plenty of conservatives have fallen under the sway of similar misconceptions about history. In the aftermath of the Cold War, many on the right became enamored of the idea—proposed by Francis Fukuyama in 1989—that history had come to a vanishing point. “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,” he wrote. Even then, critics accused him of reheating Marx, but post-Soviet euphoria overshadowed their objections. Neoconservatives—many of whom had once espoused socialism before turning right, of course—zealously championed the idea that liberal democracy was not only inevitable, but that this made it well-suited for exportation, at the muzzle of a gun if necessary.

The idea was every bit as illusory as the liberal hope of progress, a point proven dramatically by the war in Iraq. Fukuyama repudiated much of his original point, and the idea that history is “over,” with liberal democracy as the winner, seems more tenuous than ever. Meanwhile, George W. Bush sought a new sort of solace in history after he left office, telling CNN, “History will ultimately judge the decisions that were made for Iraq and I’m just not going to be around to see the final verdict.”

That is a sort of abdication of responsibility (although perhaps Bush had done enough to change the course of history already and it was just as well for him to quit). Obama’s position represents a different sort of abdication, a chance to write off the hard work of politics—both enacting policies and trying to bring skeptics around to his position. If he’s on the right side of history, why bother? Everything’s coming his way anyway. One narrative of the Obama presidency is about a man who came to power promising to change the way Washington worked, and who—despite an impressive list of concrete achievements—found himself unable to meaningfully change the D.C. M.O. It turns out that bending the cost curve is easier than bending the arc of history. Frustrated in his ability to rework the system, Obama and his team seem to have chosen to withdraw on some issues, and trust to the passage of time; he has invoked “the right side of history” more often in his second term than in his first.

One reason Obama’s claims of the “end of history” seem to be gathering more robust criticism these days is that they now offend not just conservative commentators, but more liberal and centrist ones, as well. Say that opponents of marriage equality are on the wrong side of history and you’ll have the support of many elites, as well as a majority of the population (according to polls). The loudest objections will come from people who subscribe to, well, older moralities—making it possible to smugly write them off as historically incorrect.

Yet even if same-sex marriage is here to stay, and even if that is the moral position, it’s hardly proof of the whole whiggish project—as becomes clear when Obama applies the “right side” claim to ISIS.The group’s spread comes amid what Aatish Taseer described as “the return of history” in a recent essay. Fundamentalist religious movements are inherently modern, as Taseer notes. “As the ultimate source of legitimacy, history has become a way for modernizing societies to procure the trappings of modernity while guarding themselves from its values.” This means that radical groups—from Islamists to Buddhist nationalists—can use the mantle of history to assert their legitimacy. And Obama, having done the same himself, is in a weak position to rebut them. At the same time, the so-called modern and Western viewer looks at these events with horror, seeing thought that seemed irretrievably gone to the past surging back.

Theologians have wrestled with the problem of evil for centuries: How can a benevolent God allow terrible things to happen? There may be no single, satisfying answer to that question, but there are many suggested resolutions. The whig interpretation of history is, like religion, a faith-based system of belief, but it’s much less equipped to deal with misfortune. Perhaps ISIS’s barbarism proves that they are on the wrong side of history—but what if, terrifyingly, it’s evidence that they are on the right side of history, and Western civilization is on the wrong? Luckily, there’s an easy way to sidestep the dilemma: relegating the whig interpretation to the dustbin of history. Now that would be progress.

What Is America Fighting For?

The United States has been at war with ISIS for more than a year, and with Islamic extremism for nearly a decade and a half. But beyond defending the homeland against terrorism, U.S. leaders have not offered a compelling answer to this vital question: What is it that America is fighting for?

The question has taken on new urgency as electoral politics has driven a surge of illiberal populism, not only in the United States but in many European democracies. America will not defeat the grave challenge it faces by retreating from its core principles. When societies fall out of touch with their most elevating, unifying beliefs, they decline into cynicism and sloth. This is how states and civilizations decay and disappear.

Democracy’s Deepening Recession



From the very beginning, the unifying American principle has been freedom. For almost two and a half centuries, Americans have held these truths to be self-evident: that all people “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Among these were the natural rights to institute a government “of, by and for the people”; to think, speak, publish, worship, assemble, and organize freely; and to have these rights protected by an independent judiciary.

When these principles were first codified in 1776 and in 1789, in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they embodied a uniquely American creed. But they drew heavily from European Enlightenment thinkers. And the founders advanced them as universal values. Since America’s founding, the principles of equality, freedom, and government by and for the people have been increasingly embraced around the world, particularly since the mid-1970s, when democracy began its spread from being mainly a Western phenomenon to a global one, in nearly 120 countries today. During this period, the number of liberal democracies—with good protections for political and civil freedoms under a rule of law—also steadily increased, from 57 states in 1994 to 79 states in 2005 (about 40 percent of all the world’s states). And that is where it remains.

Over the last decade, democratic progress ground to a halt and freedom has been receding, for a number of reasons. The debacle of American intervention in Iraq, which was justified in part as a “democracy promotion” exercise, soured the U.S. and other Western publics on the goal of trying to support the spread of democracy, even by peaceful means. The shambles in Iraq, the rise of China, the aggression of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and the tentativeness of American leadership have also diminished American prestige and influence in the world. And in poorer countries, democracy has struggled against long odds due to weak states, massive corruption, and low levels of education.

You can’t beat a surging ideology with no ideology or higher sense of purpose. In the face of the persistent challenge of violent Islamist extremism and the global recession of freedom, what the world has needed is a powerful reaffirmation of the universal relevance of liberal values. Instead, the democratic West has been retreating into moral relativism and illiberal impulses.

The assault on liberal values has been a defining feature of the democratic recession. During the past decade, democracy has typically ended not with tanks rolling in the streets or the president shutting down parliament, but rather in suffocating increments: with a regime steadily rigging elections, limiting opposition rights, taming independent media, and criminalizing the work of independent organizations. This was the playbook by which Putin took Russia from a quasi-democracy into a personal dictatorship, dependent on xenophobic nationalism and international conflict for its legitimacy. The script has been copied in varying degrees by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, his populist authoritarian soulmates in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, and by Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, among others.

With the lavish aid of financial inducements, Putin and his oil-rich fellow autocrats in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have been attracting support from a growing number of European politicians. But worse than material cooptation has been the unabashed admiration for Putin’s illiberal rule from the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, along with many other right-wing anti-immigrant European politicians. In October elections, Poland’s far-right Law and Justice party stormed back to power after eight years, with its leader, President Jaroslaw Kaczynski, evincing admiration for Orban’s chauvinistic concentration of power. It remains to be seen if Kaczynski and his party will erode democratic freedoms, pluralism, and the rule of law with the zeal and skill of Orban, but the early signs are disturbing.

Historically, authoritarian populists have thrived at the ballot box when voters feel angry, alienated, and insecure. It’s not just physical insecurity (terrorism, violence, and war) that inclines people toward political extremes. Rapid social change and economic insecurity leave people feeling threatened and unmoored—susceptible to chauvinistic, anti-immigrant slogans.

That is why, even before the current Syrian refugee crisis, right-wing populist parties were gaining dramatically across a Europe buffeted by economic stagnation, large-scale immigration, rising inequality, and the growing distance between ordinary citizens and the institutions of the European Union. Recently, the anti-immigrant right-wing National Front led the first round of French regional elections with 30 percent of the vote. Although it lost all of the second-round races, its leader, Marine Le Pen, is now a serious contender for the French presidency in 2017. In Switzerland in October, the anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party became the largest party in the federal parliament with a similar share of the vote. In Austria and Greece, resilient far-right parties have neo-Nazi roots.

As Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab wrote some four decades ago in The Politics of Unreason, Americans have historically flocked to far-right movements when they felt their social status was threatened. A classic analogue to Donald Trump’s tirades against Mexican immigrants—and, now that there is a hotter button to push, Muslim immigrants—was the Know Nothing movement of the 1850s, which stirred bigoted populist fears of being overwhelmed by Catholic immigration. It was one of several reactionary movements that sought to curb immigration—fortunately with little lasting effect. Eight decades later, the tables turned when a charismatic anti-Semitic Catholic priest, Father Charles Coughlin, used his radio broadcasts to promote sympathy for Hitler and Mussolini and to blame the Jews for the Bolshevik revolution, the spread of communism, and (paradoxically) control of international banking as well.

These were only two of many moments when political demagogues deftly manipulated fear to build a nativist, anti-elitist political movement against pluralism, tolerance, and global integration. Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns in the 1990s had many of these strains, but while Buchanan won the 1996 Republican primary in New Hampshire (and little else), Donald Trump could prove to be the most serious U.S. presidential contender in memory to play with this kind of fire.

Common to right-wing populist movements is the nativist instinct to stigmatize and divide, to propagate simple answers to complex policy challenges, and to blame some “other”—a vulnerable minority, a corrupt elite, malevolent external forces, or typically some conspiracy among these—for people’s anxieties. This is the common ground on which Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen, and Donald Trump stand. While they differ in their implications for democracy (or in the extent to which they have so far had the opportunity to damage it), they share striking similarities in the tone and content of their appeal. Most strikingly, the far-right populists in Europe and the United States share a strong current of respect, or even open admiration, for Putin.

But the nativist lurch tends to end badly for a country, and never more so than in an era when increasing global trade and competitiveness place a premium on openness, innovation, and cooperation. Xenophobic nationalism and ethnic chauvinism stifle the flows of capital, talent, and ideas that are the true lasting foundations of prosperity. As Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, never tires of emphasizing, the common political challenge of our time is learning how to govern over diversity. That is the most precious advantage that liberal democracies (most of all the United States) have enjoyed over other forms of government.

Freedom and pluralism do not just confer a long-run economic advantage. They also generate the deeper cohesion, flexibility, and resilience that have always enabled America to prevail over authoritarian and totalitarian challengers. It is not just electoral choice but an abiding commitment to the freedom and equal worth of every individual that makes the United States and its fellow liberal democracies the envy of most of the rest of the world.

If the United States degrades freedom in the quest for security, its citizens will wind up neither free nor secure. There is little that the radical Islamists want more than to propel America down this self-destructive path. In the battle against Islamic terrorism, there is nothing that will strengthen the country more than to affirm that Americans are all in this fight together, equally, irrespective of race, religion, or class.

How Trump and ISIS Help Each Other

At first glance, Donald Trump looks like Islamic extremism’s worst nightmare. Trump said he would ban the billion-plus Muslims around the world from visiting the U.S. He would send the medieval ISIS back to the proverbial Stone Age: “Bomb the shit outta them.” In Tuesday’s Republican debate, Trump underscored his previously stated desire to deliberately kill the families of ISIS members. “I would be very, very firm with families. Frankly, that will make people think because they may not care much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their families’ lives.”

From another angle, however, Trump and ISIS are effectively, if not intentionally, helping each other. They don’t communicate. There’s no moral equivalence between them. Nevertheless, Trump and ISIS aid each other’s agendas in a strange combination of the coiffured and the caliphate. Even in a Republican Party that has drifted closer to Islamophobia in recent years, Trump stands out for his polarizing rhetoric, which poses a threat to openness and tolerance in the United States. “Terrorists like ISIL are trying to divide us along lines of religion and background,” as President Obama warned recently. “Prejudice and discrimination helps ISIL and it undermines our national security.”

Do the Democrats Have a Strategy Against ISIS?



The Trump-ISIS symbiosis reveals a bigger story. International politics often looks like a contest between opposing countries, terrorist groups, and insurgencies. But the hardliners on all sides may be working together—deliberately or inadvertently. In other words, there’s a global confederation of extremists.

“Hardliner” refers to an uncompromising mentality, which lumps enemies together; sees the world in black-and-white, “good-versus-evil” terms; and backs extreme responses to perceived threats. Today, hardliners are often found on the populist right, preying on economic insecurity and fears of terrorism: Trump in the United States, Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, or Viktor Orban’s “illiberal state” in Hungary. But there are also plenty of hardliners in communist countries as well as in the Islamic world. The ultras—whether they’re in Raqqa, Tehran, Washington, or Tel Aviv—can form a symbiotic relationship. Like tango dancers, the hardliners move in a close embrace, taking steps that facilitate the actions of the other.

First, hardliners on opposing sides may communicate a surprisingly similar narrative of the conflict in which they’re involved. In their values, ISIS and Trump are polar opposites. ISIS insists that women cover their bodies by wearing veils, abayas, and gloves—whereas Trump used to run the Miss Universe Organization. Trump probably knows little about ISIS’s apocalyptic understanding of Islam. ISIS would find Trump’s politics similarly incomprehensible.

And yet they both to varying degrees promote the same story of a clash between the West and Islam. Radical Islamists try to mobilize support by tying their cause to the banner of faith. ISIS propagates a narrative where Muslims are under assault by Christians, Jews, and atheists, and violent resistance offers salvation. Meanwhile, hawkish Republicans insist on Islamizing terrorism by continually modifying the term with “radical Islamic” or just plain “Islamic,” and pour scorn on Obama for downplaying the religious dimension. Last week, Trump tweeted: “Well, Obama refused to say (he just can’t say it), that we are at WAR with RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISTS.” With a few edits, ISIS might have sent the same tweet. (Worryingly, Trump’s narrative is catching on. According to one poll, a plurality of 42 percent of Republicans support the ban on Muslims entering the country. Despite Trump’s lack of national-security experience, GOP voters trust him more than any other Republican candidate to tackle terrorism.)

Second, hardliners represent each other’s meal ticket. They may rail against the enemy, but the enemy is what keeps them in business. The ultras try to defeat the moderates on their own side by forcing them into a binary choice: Either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists (or the infidels). The key to this strategy is the adversary’s vitriolic hatred and violence, which sends the moderates fleeing to the extreme.

seeking in part to incite Israeli opinion against the deal. In 1995, Yigal Amir, an extremist Israeli and a supporter of Jewish settlements, shot Rabin dead, explicitly to prevent a peace deal.

Under the shadow of Hamas missiles, Israelis lurched to the right. During the last decade, rocket-fire from Gaza into Israel steadily expanded in range. One study found that after an Israeli city fell within Hamas’s target sights, that city saw a significant increase in support for right-wing parties. In turn, radical Israeli settlers launched “price tag” attacks on Palestinians, hitting symbolic targets like mosques to intimidate Palestinians, but also to provoke reprisals, force the Israeli military to send help, and ultimately protect settlements in the West Bank. Today, peace in the Holy Land seems as far away as ever.

It was a similar story between Israel and Iran. For Israeli hardliners, Iran’s previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was a useful enemy who could be relied upon to issue incendiary rhetoric, including Holocaust denial, that only aided the hawkish cause. Danny Ayalon, a right-wing Israeli politician and former ambassador to the U.S., described Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric as “the gift that keeps on giving.”

Iranian hardliners served much the same function in the United States during negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. In the lead-up to the deal, which hardliners in both countries opposed, Jamal Abdi, the policy director of the National Iranian American Council, cited a “symbiotic relationship” between them and said: “The hawkish rhetoric by Iranians feeds the rhetoric of hawkish Republicans.” The front page of the conservative Iranian paper Kayhan, he noted, “reads like the ticker on Fox News.”

crowed after San Bernardino, “I do better.”

And the benefits go both ways. Trump’s emphasis on the “Islamic” nature of extremism legitimizes the opposing side’s message, and antagonizes Muslim moderates who naturally bristle at the implied association with terrorism. ISIS’s own propaganda spells out its strategy of “polarizing” Muslims by making life impossible for the moderates—a strategy that Trump, through his rhetoric, is abetting. If Trump actually turned this rhetoric into political reality, it would confirm the Islamists’ argument that the United States is implacably opposed to their religion. To, in Trump’s words, “take out” completely innocent civilians simply because they are the parents, siblings, or children of ISIS members is not only morally abhorrent—it would be a catastrophe for America’s global image.

Third, in contrast to the unintentional symbiosis between Trump and ISIS, hardliners around the world sometimes coordinate their actions more explicitly. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for example, appears to have deliberately fostered the rise of ISIS by releasing radical prisoners from jail, and targeting air strikes against more moderate opposition groups—in a bid to make himself look like the lesser evil for foreign and domestic audiences. In turn, ISIS appears to be in no rush to overthrow Assad and focuses instead on building its caliphate.

Hawks may try to stop peaceful negotiations by inviting their counterparts abroad to act as spoilers. Last March, Republican senators attempted to derail the Iran nuclear deal by sending an open letter to Iran’s leaders threatening that a future president could revoke any bargain “with the stroke of a pen.” Obama responded: “It’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran. It’s an unusual coalition.”

saw themselves as companions traveling on a dangerous road together. After receiving news of Rabin’s death, Arafat wept.

In Tuesday’s GOP debate, when Senator Rand Paul pushed back against the idea of deliberately killing the families of ISIS members, Trump replied: “So, they can kill us, but we can’t kill them? That’s what you’re saying.”

The United States should not become like ISIS. That’s exactly what I’m saying.