Profiles in Discouragement
One day, the United States will turn the page on Donald Trump. But, as Americans prepare to observe their Thanksgiving holiday, they should reflect that their country's culture and global standing will never recover fully from the wounds that his presidency is inflicting on them.
NEW YORK – Some specialists in the life sciences say that no one is ever fully cured of any injury or disease, because our cells forever retain traces, memories, of even the slightest attacks on the body’s integrity. So it will be with the United States.
The Year Ahead 2018
The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define the year ahead.
One day, the US will turn the page on Donald Trump. But America will never recover completely from the unstanchable wound that his presidency’s baseness, bull-headed stupidity, and puzzling passivity in the face of China’s global ambitions has inflicted on its culture and international standing. Is Trump a symptom? Or is he a terminal disease?
Demoralization and defeatism have not spared the Democrats, as I found recently in New York and on a recent visit to Chicago to address a seminar at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. At the home of the Iranian-American Nazee Moinian, whose Manhattan apartment recalls the patrician abodes of the members of the Algonquin Round Table, the assembled elites are in agreement. Trump, by not backing the Kurds in their bid for independence from Iraq, committed not just a moral error, but also an irreparable political mistake. He betrayed his Kurdish ally. He strengthened his Iranian adversary.
The German legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt might say that Trump had confused his friend and his enemy, dealing with the former as he should have dealt with the latter. Inexplicably, Trump sacrificed (once again) a crucial US national interest, this time by abandoning the sole force in the Middle East region (outside of Israel) on which America could safely and seriously rely.
How does one respond to such a forfeiture? With what resources? Was there really no way to counter the club of bad neighbors who refuse to countenance any discussion of Kurdish sovereignty?
Some Democrats swallow their national pride and say that France’s young president, Emmanuel Macron, newly crowned by Time magazine as king of Europe, is in a better position to step in and stay the hand of Iraq and Iran. Older Democrats express not the slightest reservation about the use of US power during the Cold War. But here they are, paralyzed, disarmed, when the time comes to raise their voice – merely their voice! – against the sinister but motley gang of four (Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria) blocking Kurdish independence.
At Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue, the most beautiful synagogue in New York and one of the largest in the world, I was recently interviewed by Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review. The conversation again turned to Macron. I tried to explain that his trademark phrase, en même temps (at the same time), which tends to be heard here as an expression of American-style pragmatism, may instead be one of the most visible traces of his doctrinal proximity to the French Protestant philosopher Paul Ricœur. Far from reflecting careful deliberation over an ambiguous choice, “at the same time” is the credo of someone suspended in fear and trembling before the unsolvable and terrifying mystery of the double nature – physical and spiritual, mortal and resurrected – of the tormented body of Christ.
But very soon we arrive at the question of anti-Semitism in America. On the one hand, it is to be found in that horde of nativists, white supremacists, and neo-confederates who descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, in August to break some black and Jewish heads. On the other hand, it is seen among leftists on US campuses who have caught the fever of BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions), the global campaign against Israeli products that is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate from a quasi-overt campaign against products and businesses that are just plain Jewish.
In this sense, are we living in the époque of Trump, in which Trump’s revival of the “America First” slogan of the American Nazis in the 1930s has encouraged a loosening of bigoted tongues? Could it be that Trump himself, despite his officially pro-Israel positions, is a closeted anti-Semite?
The truth is that the question of Trump – the enigma of the man and even his very name – takes up much too much space in public debate. The truth is that in spending time wondering whether Trump is insane, or, like an overstuffed and obscene Hamlet, he feigns madness to confuse his adversaries, we are all falling into the trap of a narcissism that, here in the US, is the new face of nihilism.