Saturday, May 25, 2019


Bret Stephens, a liberal basher and Trump critic, believes the president will be reelected next year, based on international precedent, and you can see why he'd think so:
More than 600 million Indians cast their ballots over the past six weeks in the largest democratic election in the world. Donald Trump won.

A week ago, several million Australians went to the polls in another touchstone election. Trump won.

Citizens of European Union member states are voting in elections for the mostly toothless, but symbolically significant, European Parliament. Here, too, Trumpism will mark its territory.

Legislative elections in the Philippines this month, which further cemented the rule of Rodrigo Duterte, were another win for Trumpism. Ditto for Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election in Israel last month, the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil last October, and Italy’s elevation of Matteo Salvini several months before that.

If past is prologue, expect the Trumpiest Tory — Boris Johnson — to succeed Theresa May as prime minister of Britain, too.
Stephens means, of course, that Trump-like figures triumphed, or are likely to triumph, in all of these elections. So why not Trump himself in 2020?

Naturally, Stephens blames liberalism:
The common thread here isn’t just right-wing populism. It’s contempt for the ideology of them before us: of the immigrant before the native-born; of the global or transnational interest before the national or local one; of racial or ethnic or sexual minorities before the majority; of the transgressive before the normal. It’s a revolt against the people who say: Pay an immediate and visible price for a long-term and invisible good. It’s hatred of those who think they can define that good, while expecting someone else to pay for it.

When protests erupted last year in France over Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to raise gas prices for the sake of the climate, one gilets jaunes slogan captured the core complaint: “Macron is concerned with the end of the world,” it went, while “we are concerned with the end of the month.”
But in democracies we regularly require that citizens pay a short-term price for a long-term good defined by those in power. Somehow America survived the sacrifices needed to fight World War II and the Cold War without electing a Trump. And the president who put "minorities before the majority" by enfranchising Southern blacks was rewarded in the short term: Lyndon Johnson won a massive landslide in 1964.

Stephens recognizes flaws in his argument, but dismisses them:
You may ... think that conservatives are even guiltier than liberals and progressives of them-before-us politics: the 1-percenters before the 99 percent; the big corporations before the little guy, and so on.
Well, yes.
But the left has the deeper problem. That’s partly because it self-consciously approaches politics as a struggle against selfishness, and partly because it has invested itself so deeply, and increasingly inflexibly, on issues such as climate change or immigration. Whatever else might be said about this, it’s a recipe for nonstop political defeat leavened only by a sensation of moral superiority.
But Hillary Clinton didn't run on a promise to enact the Green New Deal or abolish ICE, and she still lost Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. And Democrats mostly ran in 2018 on expanding access to health care, which is not "politics as a struggle against selfishness." Democrats are also arguing for relief from the high costs of education -- again, not an anti-selfishness policy position. In fact, most conservatives argue that the Democratic message is "free stuff"; Stephens thinks it's exact opposite. Either way, Democrats are bad. Trump, of course, is asking Americans to sacrifice for his trade wars, and his supporters are fully on board.

Is there a way out for opponents of illiberalism? Stephens thinks so:
It needn’t be this way. The most successful left-of-center leaders of the past 30 years were Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. They believed in the benefits of free markets, the importance of law and order, the superiority of Western values, and a healthy respect for the moral reflexes of ordinary people. Within that framework, they were able to achieve important liberal victories.

Political blunders and personal shortcomings? Many. But neither man would ever have been bested by someone like Trump.
"Neither man would ever have been bested by someone like Trump"? So why was Bill Clinton's wife, with Bill as a top adviser, bested by Trump?

Here's the real problem: Citizens of America and other Western countries tolerated some sacrifices demanded by elites for the greater good because those elites managed to provide a fairly decent life for most people, while giving them reason to hope that their children would have a bright future. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton may be Stephens's model liberals, but because they did little to reverse Thatcherism and Reaganism, they kept us on the glide path to the hypercapitalist, radically unequal present, where life is good for the few who can get cushy jobs steering the global economy and is not so good for everyone else. If liberalism can now wrest sacrifices from the people who haven't lost ground in the past few decades, it can survive and pursue the kinds of projects Stephens believes are sure to be unpopular. But that's a tall order -- the rich and powerful won't give up what they've got without a fight to the death. And if liberals can't get the rich to sacrifice, then the world really will look more or less the way Stephens describes it, and illiberalism will continue to win.

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