The Malaise of Liberalism

by Alex Knepper

See also: The Malaise of Conservatism

There are few things clearer in contemporary politics than the need for an alternative vision to homo economicus, in both its liberal and socialist manifestations — man with neither roots nor telos but content merely with animalized comfort — and the right’s proposed flight back into the inadequate and unbelievable claims of the ancestral. It is also clear that there is no faction in American politics which can obviously serve as a vehicle for this alternative.

The right, even while holding political power, seems to understand itself today as the losers of recent history, and is resorting to tactics meant primarily to agitate, disorient, and inflame the winners; they are absolutely blinded by resentment, and no meaningful attempt at governing can be made until it is past this phase and reconciles itself to where we have arrived. So the way forward right now must come from the liberals, exhausted as they are — and despite that they are perhaps the least-inclined to recognize the gravity of the crisis. Why is liberalism once again susceptible to morphing in the direction of ideas it thought it had eliminated — socialism and nationalism? Victory in war, hot or cold, however dazzling, was clearly not sufficient to forever suppress the power of these ideas. Both promise a variety of security — economic and identity-based — against the rapid flux of things under liberal-democratic techno-capitalism, and the pace and intensity of that change has only grown faster in recent years. And a ‘globalized’ world of mass-communications is not just economically disorienting — it is spiritually disorienting, for young and old alike, the former of whom have not known a world unlike this, and the latter of whom have and are aghast at its disintegration. The greater the depths of disorientation, the greater the potential heights of reactive fanaticism. As we have said: people like Donald Trump simply do not come to power when people are not hurting, and badly.

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Liberals need to be able to answer the question: Why liberalism today? What kind of life does liberalism help to enable, and why is it desirable? There is no doubt that liberalism benefits certain small groups in large ways — the bourgeois professional class continues to thrive materially, and writers and artists will always have a special appreciation for the liberties of free speech, religion, and association, for instance. But if we believe Aristotle that good government necessitates a balance between the needs of the few and the needs of the many, liberals have to be able to provide some account of what a good life under liberalism looks like for the ordinary citizen. With ideals of religion, race, education, property, family, marriage, and sex all unusually unstable, we are in dire need of a coherent blueprint for what life under liberalism ought to look like in the 21st century. A requirement of this project would be to acknowledge and adequately address the challenges posed by Nietzsche and Marx — it need not ‘rebut’ them, but it must address them — and would itself be tantamount to a long-needed contemporary defense of liberal democracy — a defense of the idea that it is capable of providing decent and substantive lives for the many.

Of course, liberalism has been in need of such a defense for quite some time, and little has been forthcoming. Perhaps liberal democratic capitalism has lurched through the generations out of sheer inertia and material might, the beneficiaries of a historical head-start. That variants of the zombie ideologies of socialism and nationalism are coming back to torment us again suggests that the need for a recuperation and rehabilitation of liberalism has reached a fever pitch.

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Does the Conservative Brand Need a Reset?

by Daniel Clements

Journalist Bill Kristol tweeted recently that conservatives should consider rebranding themselves as “liberals” to distance themselves from Trumpism, noting they’re for “liberal democracy, liberal world order, liberal economy, liberal education…”. The pro-Trump pundits immediately took this admittedly flippant remark as another indicator of the Establishment™️’s conspiracy to unseat the president. Of course, “conservatives” in the US would typically be described as “liberals” in Europe (and if the US had a more European-style ideological spectrum, the Republican Party would be a coalition of a liberals, Christian Democrats, and nationalists). Lacking a feudal past and being founded on (classical) liberal principles, it follows that to be conservative in the US is to be liberal, though the term now has a different meaning in common speech.

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The negative reaction from Trump supporters is surprising, as they largely openly rejected conservatism, both as a label and ideology—asserting that limited government and the free-market are non-issues, especially in comparison to cultural and civic cohesion. I for one always found arguments over what is genuinely “conservative” to be pointless semantics: the ideas being signified are more important than the signifiers. It’s doubtful that conservatives need to undergo a rebranding in the same way liberals embraced the moniker of “progressives.” I suspect, to the extent Americans have a distinct idea of “conservatism,” they associate Trump less with whatever that is and more with the terms “populist” and “nationalist.” Though Mr. Kristol was clearly not making a serious proposal, conservatives should still focus more on advancing their ideas and policies instead of playing with words. Namely: they should be willing to work with Trump and his faction on common ground, yet hold fast when the occasion calls for it—just as they should with moderate Republicans and Democrats.

The more significant brand issue is with the label of “Republican,” and it’s yet to be seen whether American voters will equate the party as a whole with Trump. In 2006, voters took out their frustration with George W. Bush on the GOP and the brand became toxic. The same country would reelect Barack Obama shortly after, while thoroughly routing the Democrats at the state level in election after election — not to mention both chambers of Congress. If recent history is a guide, the president’s image can hurt his party, but not help. In this case, Republicans, both conservative and moderate, should be willing to distinguish themselves from the president — although it appears that he is already doing that for them.

Notes On the Alt-Right From the Satanic Girlieman Who Saw It Coming

by Alex Knepper

I.

Seven years ago, on our way en route to CPAC 2010, I got into an argument with current alt-right poster boy Richard Spencer — then just a measly freelancer and activist like yours truly — about race, politics, and the meaning of Western values. I was a 19-year-old college sophomore at the time; he was 32. I recounted the tale on David Frum’s website Frum Forum shortly after Spencer opened his own website, ‘Alternative Right,’ for the sake of exposing the ‘alt-right’ label, which he had just coined, as nothing but a thinly-veiled euphemism for white nationalism:

Tim Mak is right: the website Alternative Right is run by a white nationalist, for white nationalists.

I happen to intermittently know Richard Spencer, the site’s director. Through a couple of mutual contacts, I met him in the midst of CPAC 2009 and received a ride from him from Washington DC’s Dupont Circle, where we were each protesting the censorship imposed upon Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, to the Marriott Hotel where the convention was being held.

Along the way, things got a little testy. We somehow got into discussing biological differences between the races. Our ideological differences soon emerged…

“Show me one black nation that’s ever been run competently,” he challenged me…

“This is not Western,” I said. “How can you possibly claim to stand for Western civilization? What’s brilliant about our values is that they stand for the individual, not the supremacy of the group. You come to America, you’re judged by your merits — not by what you look like.”

After a few more back-and-forths, we arrived at our destination, and as our car-mates went ahead, he told me to stay with him for a minute so he could talk to me. As the others faded into the background, he moved just inches away from my face, gave me a menacing look and yelled: “You little child. How dare you talk to me — me! — about the West! You don’t know the first thing about the West! You’re a little twelve-year-old who thinks he knows shit. Don’t you ever talk to me like that again or I will beat your face into the fucking ground!”…

I let him walk ahead of me, and it ended there. But that is the real Richard Spencer: a white nationalist, a bully, and an intellectual coward.

He replied to this by, essentially, denying the incident happened. (I stand by my account.)

Through other mutual contacts, I met a few other white nationalists at CPAC, and decided that I was interested in talking to more of them directly, so I could pick their brains and write something about what they were up to. One particularly blockheaded alt-right groupie failed to perceive me as hostile to his cause, and inexplicably invited me to visit a meeting held by a white nationalist group he was interested in, the ‘Wolves of Vinland.’ I did so, and wrote a trollish piece saying that these were the people Spencer, who had a sophomoric interest in Nietzsche (who, by the way, once proclaimed that he wanted to have anti-Semites shot and expressed gratitude toward the Jews), thought were the ‘supermen‘ who should form the new vanguard of the right:

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Sorry, Cinzia, But the Rot Comes From the Top

by Alex Knepper

Cinzia’s latest stream of columns are bold and full of confidence, despite a series of recent high-profile defeats for the president. They are best interpreted, however, as typical of the desperate blame-shifting occurring among Trump’s core supporters as his presidency falls into disarray.

She has convinced herself that the blame for the humiliating Obamacare repeal fiasco rests at the feet of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, and that they must go — as if any Republican on the planet is capable of uniting the Cruz-Paul-Lee faction of the GOP with the Collins-Murkowski one. The simple fact is that the Republican Party, despite its recent electoral successes, is still very much confused about its direction and very much internally divided — and its Senate majority, while real and useful, is simply too narrow to pass truly controversial legislation. One would think that Cinzia would look to our president — the man who styles himself as the master of ‘the deal’ — the man who united the national party in last year’s election — the man who launched his campaign with a rousing speech in which declared that we needed a president “who wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.'” But the man who ‘wrote’ ‘Art of the Deal’ was nowhere to be found when he should have been leading the way. He was a follower, not a leader — but Cinzia prefers to blame Reince Preibus for advising Trump to dance with the ones who brought him — Republicans, who also elected the Republican Congress — rather than blaming Trump for taking on a job for which he was obviously not prepared.

Cinzia blames the media for focusing on gossipy leaks, which Trump incompetently cannot stop — even as she spent months in 2016 justifying the constant press coverage of illegal WikiLeaks hacks on the basis that what’s really important is not the leaking itself, but the information contained in the leaks; that, since Clinton is an important public figure, the people deserve to know about what’s in them and that therefore her campaign and supporters had no right to complain. The point here is not that Clinton was treated unfairly — the point is that Cinzia has one set of rules for Trump and another, completely different set of rules for everyone else. She relies on ad hoc logic to defend Trump because he cannot possibly be seen in a positive light if he is judged by ordinary standards.

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Instead of focusing on leaks and legal troubles, Cinzia would rather the media cover Trump’s supposed accomplishments. Of course, Trump cut his teeth in the campaign season by going to war with the media, so it’s sad and ironic that she would blame the press for not trying to prop him up in his hour of need. But more importantly, he really has not accomplished much of anything. To my mind, the only substantive policy shift so far has been his backing out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership: a win for China, which can now make a legitimate claim to forthcoming economic supremacy in that zone of the East. Backing out of the non-binding Paris Accord was all noise since it had no enforcement mechanism to begin with. The piecemeal chipping away at regulations are more about quantity than quality, and it is telling that Trump loyalists never offer any specifics. The ban on transgendered people in the military is completely made-up (the Pentagon does not consider a tweet a policy order). The vaunted ‘travel ban’ was so thin as to be practically non-existent. There has been policy change regarding NATO or NAFTA. We continue to be hostile toward Russia, Obamacare stands. Rates of illegal immigration were declining long before Trump took office. It is absurd to give the young Trump Administration credit for positive economic news (the president gets too much credit or blame for the state of the economy generally, besides). His management style is perceived more as that befitting his reality-TV past than as ‘modern-day presidential.’ His approval rating is in the toilet. He appointed a quality conservative justice in Neil Gorsuch — but that is no different than what Jeb Bush or John Kasich would have done, so there’s nothing Trump-specific to report in that instance. Continue reading

Why Won’t People Stop Lying About Hillary and the DNC?

by Alex Knepper

It’s the lie that won’t die: the Democratic National Committee ‘coronated’ Hillary Clinton, so that St. Bernie Sanders, the disruptive outsider with a heart of gold and a record of purity, couldn’t crash their insider party.

Damon Linker of The Week, who is obviously very pleased that his content-cow Clinton hasn’t yet retreated from the public spotlight, makes the latest case (emphasis mine):

Hillary Clinton was a deeply flawed candidate who ran an atrocious campaign and should never have been anointed as the presumptive nominee by the Democratic National Committee in the first place. If Clinton wanted to run for president while under investigation by the FBI, that was her business. But why on Earth would the DNC and the party’s “superdelegates” decide so far in advance that a candidate running with that kind of baggage should be considered the inevitable victor? Aside from the obstacles it placed in the way of her one serious challenger (Bernie Sanders), it helped to discourage many others (including Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren) from jumping into the race. Why bother when you know the party is standing against you?

That decision on the part of the DNC had fateful consequences…

This is an utterly bizarre rewrite of history — one which has gained currency because it is unfathomable to people like Linker that anyone could actually like the Worst Woman In the History of the Planet, or actually think she would have made a good president. In their minds, St. Bernie was so obviously a superior candidate — and superior person — that only manipulation from on-high could explain her nomination, and that her voters must have been brainwashed, or the victims of Donna Brazile-engineered propaganda — or maybe voting with their vaginas or something. It would be too much to suggest that any of this can be interpreted as white men and college kids lashing out at the fact that women and non-whites had the decisive role in determining the outcome of the primary. But it certainly is an astounding case of bad memory.

It is easy enough to forget now, after the more-competitive-than-expected primary season, but Hillary entered 2015 with a 30-50-point lead in the polls. The reason that every other Democrat with a marquee name declined to run against her is not because the Democratic National Committee was coronating her, but because she was crushing the competition democratically. The field wasn’t cleared for her. She cleared the field herself — because she came in a very close 2nd place in the 2008 contest against President Barack Obama and went on to serve under him for four years, during which time she routinely registered approval ratings in the 50s and 60s. It would not be too much to say that Hillary Clinton, detached as she was from the major political battles of the day, was the most popular politician in the country during most of Obama’s second term.

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Is Trump More Embarrassing or Dangerous?

by Alex Knepper

I fell in love with presidential politics during the 2004 race and have been writing about it ever since. I love the presidency. I love presidential campaigns. I think the president is always a vital player in corralling his party behind a coherent, purposeful agenda.

Since the inauguration, I been caught in a lull as a political writer, largely because, as I suggested in previous articles, President Donald Trump makes me less angry than depressed. Unlike all but a couple of past presidents, Trump is anything but a vital player, and is incapable of becoming one. He is worse than useless; he entered office as a lame duck and still has nothing to brag about but his victory over Hillary Clinton, whom Republicans quite obviously miss very much. Trump has spent the entirety of the last six months wielding his unique reverse-Hand-of-Midas ability to turn everything into shit — which he then proceeds to fling at everyone. It’s “damn good for CBS“! But I didn’t get into politics to cover it like a paparazzo.

Trump Embarrassing

A president who maxes out at a 45% approval rating and is stuck mostly in the 38-42% range is incapable of wielding leverage. He is neither feared nor loved. Leaders of Trump’s own party casually dismiss his proposals, and he has so alienated the other party that he cannot possibly form viable non-traditional coalitions, despite running last year, in a sense, against both parties. For the last half-year it has been almost like America doesn’t have a president. At best, Trump can hope to become a bill-signing machine for the Congressional GOP. But with nearly every plank of the Republican agenda stalled despite the party controlling nearly every conceivable part of government — the presidency, the Senate, the House, the Supreme Court, governorships, state legislatures — there is in a sense little to write about. Each time I try to write something about an event like Trump’s classless, clownish speech to the Boy Scouts, I am stopped by the sentiment I expressed at the end of last year that I refuse to spend the next four years in perpetual anger and irritation. The healthiest way I can react to Trump’s hijinx is to ignore them. Continue reading

Notes on Disengagement From the Middle East

by Alex Knepper

What do we lose when we start disengaging from the Middle East? I think we lose a sense of national honor. I think we lose a sense of our moral distinctiveness. I think we lose some of the legitimacy behind our claim that we possess a willingness as Americans to look hard truths in the eye and confront hard choices others want to ignore. I think we will be more likely to allow ourselves to forget about the outside world. I think engagement abroad can also be a healthy reminder of what unites us as Americans — of what we have in common, and what makes us different from the rest of the world: whether we are from Maryland or Montana, we have infinitely more in common with each other than with our enemies abroad. Nowadays we lose sight of that seemingly-obvious fact with relative frequency. I also believe well-coordinated interventions can be an effective way to do a lot of good for a lot of deserving and suffering people, if we check the right boxes — see: Hillary Clinton’s reasonable and limited proposal for a No-Fly Zone in Syria. I think this is a loftier and more ennobling enterprise than just constantly trying to run down the price of everything and fatten our paychecks.

Americans hate foreign policy. They do not pay attention to it unless it seems immediately relevant to their own lives and values. For the overwhelming majority for Americans, the rest of the world is something they see on TV: something an ocean away. And furthermore, in campaigns, this irritant, foreign policy, insists on diverting our attention away from programs and institutions at home that have become totally dysfunctional. When we are dysfunctional at home — witness the price tag attached to college and health care, rent in major cities, and diminished job opportunities — we will be far less likely to be able to rally our people to a grand mission abroad. My colleague Cinzia has a point, in that regard. Someone who is staring down a life-altering medical bill or six-figure student loan debt is a lot less likely to find room in his political consciousness for the spirit of military virtue.

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More to the point, America’s big-picture mission in the Middle East no longer makes sense to the average voter — it has become incoherent. Voters last year seemed to have little idea what America was trying to accomplish in Syria in the first place, and many were convinced outright that we had no interest there at all and that the attention we paid to its civil war was misguided or a waste of time. Many simply find the topic overwhelmingly complicated and confusing and do not understand why they cannot be provided with a simple-enough explanation for why we should be involved. A real threat can be explained succinctly and quickly, right? The old canard that we have an obligation to fight evil dictators is no longer convincing, and it is wrong. besides. So what is the point of our intervention? What is the explicit, bottom line goal that the average voter can weigh and measure?

Proponents of intervention since the Iraq War are hopelessly divided and no longer speak with one voice about what we hope to accomplish in the Middle East. I have a lot of very serious disagreements, for instance, with many neoconservatives and liberal hawks alike about the viability, necessity, and logic of Islamic government in the Middle East. I have come to believe that most governments in the Middle East should have an Islamic character. But many, who — for good reason — are suspicious of conservative variants of Islam and think they are all incompatible with liberalism — want to side against the crazy Islamists every time, even if a particular variant of secular authoritarianism is just as bad or even worse than what the religious fanatics are offering. These include many of the followers of Donald Trump. Islamists are obviously a cancer on the planet, and the world would be better off if they all dropped off tomorrow. But the same is true of Assad: he is a despicable, cruel, liberty-hating tyrant, and by no means “our bastard.” What is the long-term strategy and goal against which the results of the proposed short-term intervention in Syria could have been judged? Americans did not know how to answer that question, and that is why they rejected further intervention in the Middle East. Those of us who believe in continued American engagement abroad must come up with better answers, or we will lose the policy battle.