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Trump : What You Get In A Nation Bewitched By The False Evangelical Gospel

I’m not sure if presidential candidate, Donald Trump believes in Jesus or any version of the Gospel. Yet, I do know, much of his fan base subscribes to the Evangelical tenets of faith. If they didn’t, their inner alarms would be bellowing and their conscience sweating at the blaring reality that is, Donald Trump. Instead, countless Evangelical creed holders are resonating with euphoric praise.

Let’s just throw out a few adjectives and see if they stick. Bigot, racist, misogynist, xenophobe, sexist—not to mention, rude, arrogant, greedy, and inhumane—stick, stick, stick. These aren’t misguided, presumptuous labels, these are real-deal realities, right from the Donald’s lips.

“You know, it really doesn’t matter what the media write as long as you’ve got a young, and beautiful, piece of ass.”
“All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me – consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected.”
“The beauty of me is that I’m very rich.”
“I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.”
“The point is, you can never be too greedy.”
“I have so many fabulous friends who happen to be gay, but I am a traditionalist.”
“I’m not sure I have ever asked God’s forgiveness. I don’t bring God into that picture….When I go to church and when I drink my little wine and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of forgiveness.”
“The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.”
“The only kind of people I want counting my money are little short guys that wear yamakas every day.”
“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
“Did you read about Starbucks? No more ‘Merry Christmas’ at Starbucks. No more. Maybe we should boycott Starbucks.”
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting.”
“Show me someone without an ego, and I’ll show you a loser.”
“My motto is: Always get even. When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades.”
.

Everyone deserves a fair shake, but somewhere along the way, you have to put two eyeballs on what’s in front of you. The truth is, Donald Trump and his political phenomenon are a product of the false Evangelical gospel. The family secrets of American, fundamentalist Christianity are increasingly becoming exposed. In Donald Trump, we have a megaphone of what their Gospel looks like in human, political form.

In Donald Trump, we see a clear manifestation of the Evangelical gospel of prosperity. In the mind of much of modern Christianity, the cause of Christ is to make one “great” in concert with your individual pursuit to do “great things” for Jesus. The slogan of their adorned training ground, Liberty University, “making champions for Christ.” As an Evangelical Christian, you are “set apart,” which subtly translates, “superior to all others.” Just attend a typical contemporary, Evangelical worship service along with their mega-pastor and state of the art facility. Your eyes will be confronted with an Evangelical Christianity that has become mesmerized by fame, fortune, and power—this, their foundational understanding of what it looks like to be “blessed.” Hook them, addict them to the endless, spiritual quest that with Jesus at your side, you can become “great again,” the very best, over all the rest. Two story houses, a dog named “spot,” and satellite tv in every room. Little pink houses for you and me; not to mention, a name-engraved Bible positioned on every coffee table for all eyes to see.  Evangelical faith finds its fruition in personal and material prosperity. This is the American, self-improvement Gospel, branded for your consuming pleasure by all things Evangelical. The Jesus of the cross—washing feet, serving enemies, lifting those who have been brought low, is no where to be found. Just ask the black community, transgenders, and homosexuals.

In Donald Trump, we are confronted with the evangelical Gospel of God-sanctioned war and violence.  With eyes on a literal, one-sided, rookie reading of the Old Testament, believing God decreed it, Evangelicals give little pause to the idea of using violence and war to further their values and religion. It’s part of the process, a little collateral damage here and there, “all for the greater good” they sing in unified, Hitler-like choruses. Evil needs to be destroyed, and all that they deem to be an enemy, is surely evil simply by them saying so. Block it, box it, wall it all off. Who knows better the battles our militaristic God would have us fight? We are Christians soldiers, onward we will go—claiming territory for Jesus, with assimilation as our goal. Join us, or be conjoined to one of our Patriot missiles. All, while hiding the true conspiracy of the 21st century, that underneath their spiritual veil and all their spiritual wizardry, is really just an insatiable greed for wealth and control.

In Donald Trump, the Evangelical gospel of sexism, white privilege, and male superiority find new heights of fruition. I mean really, didn’t you know that Jesus was a paper-white man, with Paul Mitchell, glossy-brown locks of flowing hair? Men belong up here, and women, a bit lower down there—cooking, cleaning, ironing their “9 to 5” man’s clothes. Their so damn emotional, those rib-birthed helpmates, why can’t they just shut-up and be satisfied with simply being a “penis home.” Besides, that’s the way God set it up, put it into complementarian order. Women are just a means to an end— puppets for male pleasure and control.

The white man, dominate and pure, God’s preferred way to move and breathe in our multicultural world. Surely, we have the inside scoop, we’ve cracked the divinity code to all things God, Jesus, and spiritual truth. Whatever line we have to sign or candidate we have to support, in order to keep our guns, camouflage-Jesus, and societal leverage—we’ll look the other away and bury our heads, if that’s what it takes to do so.

In Donald Trump, the Evangelical gospel of Biblical inerrancy rises to its idolatry. You can’t control people, bully your way, when spiritual assertions are really errantly “grey”—open for debate, mystery, and uncertainty. So emerges, the Evangelical addiction to inerrancy, the drug of choice for lazy, spoon-fed Christians seeking to justify their self-righteousness and bigotry. A scripture here, and church service there, name-drop “Jesus” a bit, we’ll lift you onto the mantle of “Christian leadership.” You’re one of us, as long as your proof-texting to form our mold, to claim Jesus as the spokesmodel for the “right”—the Bible is so easy, so back and white.   To think, feel, and consider outside the box, independent thoughts from what is orthodox—heretics, God-haters, false prophets, all of them. For the Bible, perfect and without error, is God’s roadmap to the American-Jesus life, and a nation above all others.  Who are you to question the American dream, it’s all so spiritual, and God delivered. Mexicans (the new Jews) not included.

In Donald Trump, the Evangelical gospel of faith-justified hate and discrimination finds its wings and weaponization. It’s all so convenient, what could be arguable with a spiritual mandate for hate and discrimination? The clear teachings of the Bible, generations of family values and tradition, it’s all so bullet proof, if only it could be legislated. Homosexuals are abominations, transgenders; deserving of death, women; second class citizens, and minorities; just another inconvenience we have to put up with. If something isn’t done with all these lessor, pungent souls, we’ll all be looking down the barrel of God’s punishment as He removes His hand of blessing and favor upon America, the Jesus-sanctioned nation—”making disciples of people just like us since 1776.”

Donald Trump is the cunning kid in the sandbox our parents warned us about and for which psychiatrist calibrate their tests, and Evangelical Christianity, the steroid that is feeding his barbaric, disproportionate, pathological growth. Blinded to the reality that this guy is eating every alphabet letter in God’s seven-deadly-sins soup. Look away, there’s nothing to see here, it’s all a part of divine prophecy.

Never give a narcissistic, ego-driven child the keys to the family station wagon, let alone, an entire nation. Let’s just say, it won’t be good. Just ask Nazi Germany.

Bewitched by the Evangelical drug of “make it great for Jesus” and “be all you can be,” we are so addicted to our own spiritual arrogance, supremacy, and self-righteousness, we don’t care who deals it to us, as long as we get another fix.

What you call, “telling like it is” is the allure that lipstick brings when underneath it’s disguising a pig.

There is only one job on planet earth where, during the interview process, you can vomit this level of vitriol and still be a candidate—the job of American, Evangelical-elected president.

If it walks like a Donald, it probably is a Donald.

You know your Gospel is false, when these are the lengths you will go to and Donald Trump, the person to which you will tip your hat, in order to keep it alive.

One thing you can know for sure, the Donald ain’t no Jesus, and Evangelical Christianity is no Gospel.

things fall apart

The Second Coming

BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The Week Democracy Died

Dark days this summer showed how government by the people—beset by illiberal populists on one side and undemocratic elites on the other—is poised for extinction.

Animation by Slate. Photos by Getty Images, Reuters.

There are years, decades even, in which history slows to a crawl. Then there are weeks that are so eventful that they seem to mark the dissolution of a world order that had once seemed solid and to foretell the rise of one as yet unknowable.

The week of July 11, 2016, has every chance of being remembered as one of those rare flurries of jumbled, inchoate, concentrated significance. The centrifugal forces that are threatening to break political systems across the world may have started to register a decade ago; they may have picked up speed over the last 12 months; but never since the fall of the Berlin Wall have they wreaked havoc in so many places in so short a span of time—showcasing the failures of technocratic rule, the terrifying rise of populist strongmen, and the existential threat posed by Islamist terrorism, all in the span of seven short days.

At first glance, a political crisis in London; a terrorist attack in Nice, France; a failed putsch in Ankara, Turkey; and a bloviating orator on his way to becoming the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States look like the dramatic apex of very different, barely connected screenplays. To my eye, they are garish panes of glass that add up to one unified, striking mosaic. Looked at from the right distance, they tell the story of a political system, liberal democracy, that has long dominated the world—and is now in the midst of an epic struggle for its own survival.

A Week Full of Omens

 

The week started with all eyes on the United Kingdom. Brits had recently voted to leave the European Union in a referendum whose unexpected results sent shock waves across the continent. But when David Cameron resigned as prime minister, when the promises of leading members of the “Leave” campaign went up in smoke, when the pound tanked and the first companies announced layoffs and many voters reportedly began to regret their choice, it seemed as though the country’s elites might engineer some subtle subterfuge. And the woman to engineer that subterfuge was Theresa May, a cautious supporter of the “Remain” campaign who had quickly emerged as one of two candidates to succeed Cameron as the country’s next prime minister.

Those hopes were dashed when May set out her political program in a hastily arranged campaign appearance in the city of Birmingham early on Monday morning. “Brexit,” she vowed in the most significant piece of political tautology of recent times, “means Brexit.” If May became prime minister, she would lead the country out of the EU—throwing the defining political project of Europe’s postwar era into an existential crisis.

 

thousandsmarchinbrexitprotest-2-3.jpg
Top: Theresa May on April 12. Bottom: A lone Brexit supporter during the protest against the referendum decision to leave the EU on July 2.

Stefan Wermuth/Reuters, Michael Tubi/Corbis via Getty Images

 

By the time Big Ben had struck noon, Andrea Leadsom, May’s last remaining rival for the leadership of Britain’s Conservative Party, and the country, had dropped out of the race. Within 48 hours, May kneeled before the Queen, and was named the second female Prime Minister in the country’s history. The cabinet picks she announced on Wednesday evening confirmed that she meant business. With Euroskeptics like Boris Johnson and David Davis in key positions, the last shreds of doubt about her commitment vanished. Britain will leave the European Union. Europe’s postwar order is one step closer to unraveling.

* * *

Thursday, July 14, was Bastille Day. After a brutal 18 months in which France was hit by two major terrorist attacks, the nation took the opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to liberty, equality, and fraternity. In his annual Bastille Day press conference at the Élysée Palace, President François Hollande announced that he would end the state of emergency that had held sway since the bloody attack on the Bataclan last November. On the beaches of Nice, just beyond the storied Promenade des Anglais, a second home to Europe’s rich and famous for the better part of two centuries, tens of thousands gathered to watch a fireworks display resplendent in red, white, and blue.

When the fireworks were over, when the city was teeming with humanity—young and old, rich and poor, French and foreign, Christian, Muslim, and Jew—a truck of death barreled down the Promenade, zigzagging, firing shots, killing indiscriminately, killing avariciously. By the time the truck had come to a standstill, 84 people were dead or dying.

Eighteen months earlier, when terrorists had stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo and gone on to kill shoppers at a kosher supermarket in the east of Paris, solidarity among the French political class had held for about a week. This time, the jockeying for position started almost immediately.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right populist National Front, mocked Hollande for his ill-timed revocation of the state of emergency and accused the government of total failure in its fight again Islamist terrorism. Her broadside resonated. Every attack pushes frightened citizens “a little closer to surrendering to the impulse to embrace an authoritarian response,” warned Art Goldhammer, one of the most astute American observers of France. While it had once seemed unimaginable that Le Pen might become president of France in elections next spring, “it is becoming thinkable” that it will be she who holds the traditional Bastille Day press conference from the Élysée Palace on July 14, 2017.

* * *

Just as tensions began to rise among the French political class, the first explosions pierced a quiet Friday night in sleepy Ankara. Yet another terrorist attack, the good people of Twitter quickly concluded. But what played out in front of the world’s eyes over the next hours was something else entirely: an old-fashioned coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, updated for the age of social media by his desperate FaceTime pleas for Turks to take to the street and come to his rescue.

Both illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism may be headed for a remarkably similar fate: a gradual descent into dictatorship.

Plotters, even ones imminently doomed to be deemed incompetent by CNN’s self-proclaimed coup experts, tend to have the benefit of surprise on their side. In those first hours, tanks secured Atatürk Airport and the offices of the state broadcasting station. Erdogan, infamously vain, was reduced to addressing his nation through the speakers of a TV presenter’s iPhone; rumors already located him en route to political exile in Germany or perhaps the United Kingdom. The country’s secular elite, it seemed, had retained more of its power than observers had thought possible. With the might of the army’s F-16s on their side, they were mounting a last-ditch attempt to resist Erdogan’s creeping Islamicization of the country. The coup looked likely to succeed.

160812_POL_June-11-Turkey
Top: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks on CNN Türk via FaceTime call in the early morning hours of July 16. Bottom: A wounded Turkish woman lies on the ground, July 16 in Ankara.

Burak Kara/Getty Images, Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images

 

Then the tide began to turn. When Erdogan next spoke to the nation, he stood in front of real cameras, looking more self-assured. At his behest, Turks came out in tens of thousands to defend democracy, or to pay allegiance to their tribune, or to claim the right to impose their religion on others, or perhaps all three at once. Most of the army fought the plotters, opposition parties condemned the coup, and—once they could be reasonably confident that Erdogan would stay in power—so did Angela Merkel and Barack Obama.

By daybreak, a military dictatorship had been averted. But liberal democracy seemed to be in no less trouble. Safely returned to Istanbul, Erdogan called the coup “a gift from God” and set about the task of purging the state of anybody whom he suspected of disloyalty. Among the scores of arrests he made, and the thousands of judges he fired, some might plausibly have had a hand in the plot; but for most, their crime was one of thought, not action. And so Turkey had witnessed two coups in 48 hours: first, the failed rebellion of factions of the military against Erdogan’s proto-authoritarian rule, and second, Erdogan’s successful purge of all who might one day challenge his position, whether through the barrel of a gun or the power of the ballot box.

* * *

Never one to allow harrowing events to upstage him or to let propriety stand in the way of his sales pitch, Donald J. Trump cheered every twist and turn in London, Nice, and Ankara from the sidelines. When Brits voted to Brexit, Trump congratulated them on taking “their country back,” promising “to do the exact same thing on Election Day 2016 here in the United States.” When he heard of the terror attack in Nice, he saw, first and foremost, an opportunity to drive home his opposition to Muslim immigration. “When will we learn?” he tweeted that Thursday night. “It’s only getting worse.” Even the coup in Turkey became “further demonstration of the failures of Obama-Clinton. You just have to look,” he said at a Saturday press conference announcing Mike Pence as his running mate, “every single thing they’ve touched has turned to horrible, horrible death-defying problems.”

Trump’s case is straightforward: The challenges facing America are momentous. But they were brought about by incompetence, corruption, or false loyalties. And so they can easily be solved once a strong, incorruptible, patriotic leader—a leader just like Trump—takes power. He, and only he, is the solution to the “death-defying problems” that shaped this terrible week.

Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump introducing his newly selected vice presidential running mate Mike Pence during an event at the Hilton Midtown Hotel, July 16 in New York City.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

 

It is this providential fusion of the people and their leader—the belief that collective deliverance from a dark world can only come from a pure, unadulterated conduit for the people’s voice—that defines the core of his appeal. And it is his closely related inability to contemplate that he may at times be mistaken, or that there may be legitimate conflicts of interest in a democracy, or that the power of the presidency needs to be checked by other institutions, that makes him so dangerous.

Never has the egotism at the heart of his appeal been more apparent than during the media blitz to introduce his running mate. During the Saturday press conference at which they first appeared in public together, Trump was barely able to say a few consecutive sentences about Pence. Instead, he passionately spoke about his own views, interlaced with a few perfunctory talking points about his would-be vice president read from a conspicuous cue card.

Sunday brought yet another display of Trump’s egotism. When Pence was asked what kind of vice president he hoped to be during a joint interview on 60 Minutes, Trump answered the question for him. When Pence lauded Trump for speaking from his heart, Trump interrupted again: “Well, I speak from my heart and my brain. Just so we understand.” But the best line of the interview, and the most telling, came when the interviewer suggested that Trump is “not known to be a humble man.”

“I think I am actually a humble man,” Trump responded. “I think I’m much more humble than you would understand.”

Liberal Democracy Under Attack

The truly scary thing about Donald Trump is not that he is unique. It is, rather, that he is far from exceptional. In a rich, raucous republic of 300 million, there will always be a glamorous bully with a taste for the gutter. What is new is not the existence of a populist willing to voice nasty sentiments; it’s that a lot of voters have become so disgusted by the political class, and so disillusioned with the current state of the country’s institutions, that they are willing to vote for someone quite so nasty.

In the long run, Trump’s particular views and quirks matter less than we would like to think. He is ultimately no more than an extra in an unfolding horror show—the most prominent beneficiary of an epochal shift whose roots predate Trump’s entry into politics and whose effects will continue to shape our societies long after he has retired to one of his many estates.

The political establishment is increasingly insulating itself from the people’s demands.

Across the affluent, established democracies of North America and Western Europe, the last years have witnessed a meteoric rise of figures who may not be quite so brash or garish as Trump and yet bear a striking resemblance to him: Marine Le Pen in France, Frauke Petry in Germany, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and many of the leading Brexiteers in the United Kingdom. They too harness a new level of anger that is quite unlike anything liberal democracies have witnessed in a half-century. They too promise to stand up for ordinary people, to do away with a corrupt political elite, and to put the ethnic and religious minorities who are now (supposedly) being favored in their rightful (subordinate) place. They, too, are willing to do away with liberal political institutions like an independent judiciary or a free, robust press so long as those stand in the way of the people’s will.  Together, they are building a new type of political regime that is slowly coming into its own: illiberal democracy.

Geert Wilders
Dutch far-right Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders in Brussels in 2014.

Francois Lenoir/Reuters

 

Critics often attack Trump, Le Pen, and their cohort for being undemocratic. But that is to misunderstand both their priorities and the reasons for their appeal. For the most part, their belief in the will of the people is real. Their primary objection to the status quo is, quite simply, that institutional roadblocks like independent courts or norms like a “politically correct” concern for the rights of minorities stop the system from channeling the people’s righteous anger into public policy. What they promise, then, is not to move away from popular rule but rather to strip it of its artificial, liberal guise—all the while embodying the only true version of the people’s will.

Places like Hungary and Poland show what this might mean in practice. Once celebrated as examples of successful democratic transition, these countries are now at the forefront of the movement toward illiberal democracy. After Viktor Orbán took power in Budapest six years ago, his Fidesz party undermined the country’s constitutional court, stacked government institutions like the electoral commission with party loyalists, and turned the most important media outlets into uncritical propaganda machines. Over the course of the past year, Poland’s Law and Justiceparty has accomplished much the same feat in a fraction of the time. In both places, key liberal rights are honored more in the breach than the observance.

Political elites are understandably terrified by the speed with which illiberal democracy is coming into its own. But if the populists are pushing for a political system that does away with one half of liberal democracy, the truth is that a large number of establishment politicians are increasingly tempted to embrace a system that does away with the other half. Where Trump and Le Pen seek to establish an illiberal democracy, a lot of sensible centrists are quietly seeking their salvation in what I call “undemocratic liberalism.” If the people want to violate the rights of unloved minorities, setting up the prospect of democracy without rights, the political establishment is increasingly insulating itself from the people’s demands, opting for a form of rights without democracy.

To be sure, undemocratic liberalism usually retains a democratic sheen. The standard rigmarole of political life in a supposed democracy is jealously observed: There are regular elections and hard-fought campaigns, grand speeches and parliamentary votes. The institutional apparatus that supposedly serves to translate the will of the people into public policy remains in place. And yet, the actual purpose of these institutions—to let the people rule—is increasingly forgotten. To anyone who cares to take a skeptical look, it is obvious how ineffectual representative institutions have become at delivering on the noble task they supposedly serve.

Take the U.S. Congress. Legislators are supposed to represent the people, but the views of ordinary voters now have precious little influence on Capitol Hill. More wealthy, more white, and much more likely to have gone to elite schools than the average American, congressmen and senators don’t resemble the people they are supposed to represent. But the main problem is not who they are but rather what incentives the systems gives them. To get elected, politicians need to prevail in a primary system that emphasizes the voice of a small number of radical ideologues. To bankroll their campaigns, they need to raise contributions at a constant clip, making them dependent on the good will of major funders. And to enjoy a plush retirement, they need to cultivate the corporations and lobbyists that are likely to throw easy money their way once they leave office. Given those conditions, it is hardly surprising that political scientists who study to what degree legislation reflects the preferences of average voters have concluded that there is a deep democratic disconnect, in the United States and in many other supposed democracies across the West as well.

Legislation thus reflects the will of the people less and less. As important, many areas of public policy have been taken out of the legislative process altogether. Congress is not only constrained by traditional balances like the Supreme Court. Increasingly, it is also hamstrung by the expanding influence of experts, an increase in bureaucratic autonomy, and the rise of new international organizations. Economic policy is a case in point: Some of the most essential economic decisions are now made by independent bureaucratic agencies like the Federal Reserve or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, set in stone by far-reaching trade agreements like NAFTA, or adjudicated by international institutions like the World Trade Organization.

Ordinary people are angry at the political system in part because they recognize to what extent they have been shut out of key decisions. But, by the same token, the process is becoming so unresponsive in part because the rise of illiberal populists has given the political establishment a good reason to insulate itself from the people’s anger. A pendulum is swinging from illiberal democracy to undemocratic liberalism, then back again. And its swings are getting wider and wider.

* * *

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is a perfect illustration of the tension between illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism.

Even the most passionate defenders of the EU find it difficult to deny that it suffers from a serious democratic deficit. Most of the power in the institution rests with the European Commission, which is run by career bureaucrats, and the European Council, which represents the governments of member states. While the European Parliament is meant to provide a democratic counterweight to this elite-driven process, it is toothless in practice: elected with a tiny turnout by voters who barely register what it does day to day, the body has few formal powers. For all of its many achievements, the EU is a key exhibit for the existence of undemocratic liberalism.

Resistance to the European Union has long been especially strong among Brits, who have traditionally prided themselves in the unchecked sovereignty enjoyed by their parliament. Under increasing pressure from right-wingers in his own party, David Cameron thus agreed to a referendum on membership in the EU. Giving the people a one-time simulacrum of plebiscitary democracy, he hoped, would “lance the boil” of Euroskepticism once and for all.

Never in history has a wealthy, consolidated democracy collapsed. Not once.

There was only one problem with this plan: When the British people were offered the little finger of plebiscitary democracy, they decided to grab hold of the whole hand. Expected to follow the lead of their betters, they took great pleasure in shocking them with their disobedience. And while there are some perfectly reasonable grounds on which to dislike the EU, opinion polls leave little doubt as to the real reasons why most Brits wound up favoring Brexit. While the hard-line Euroskeptics who forced the referendum may have been concerned with questions of sovereignty, most voters cherished an opportunity to express their illiberal resentments. For all intents and purposes, the referendum turned into a plebiscite against immigration.

In the manner of a parent who tells Little Timmy he can have anything he wants for dinner, then tries to back out of the deal when Little Timmy announces he would like a dozen grasshoppers with a side of vanilla ice cream, a lot of political leaders were tempted to backtrack on Brexit once the results were in. Couldn’t they negotiate a deal that would end formal membership in the European Union while keeping all the important things the way they are now? Or call a second referendum in the hope that it might produce a different result? Faced with a blatant expression of how illiberal the preferences of most people are, the temptation to subvert the democratic procedures that were meant to translate those views into actual public policy was—understandably—strong.

BRITAIN-EU/
A Brexit supporter outside Downing Street in London, June 24.

Neil Hall/Reuters

 

Theresa May ultimately quashed the hope that Brexit might mean something less than Brexit. The people had been allowed the rare luxury of speaking their mind, and she recognized it would have been too embarrassing to renege on so prominent a promise. If Little Timmy insisted, he would be allowed to eat grasshoppers with vanilla ice cream this one time. But just as any prudent parent would learn from the experience and grow much more wary of letting an unruly child make untutored decisions in the future, so too the political class has mostly interpreted Brexit as a warning about the irrationality of popular referenda. By and large, it will serve as a reminder of the importance of holding the illiberal preferences of the average voter at bay.

* * *

Liberal democracy is decomposing into its constitutive parts: Over the next decades, much of the world will face a tragic choice between illiberal democracy, or democracy without rights, and undemocratic liberalism, or rights without democracy.

But if that comes to pass, it is unlikely to be the end point. For when illiberal democrats fall out of favor, they tend not to give up power. What starts as a genuine attempt to channel the voice of the people all too often degenerates into a straightforward dictatorship. A strikingly similar development might well befall undemocratic liberalism: Forced to defend itself against an onslaught of illiberal populists, it may have to resort to increasingly illiberal means to subdue its opponents. In the long run, both illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism may thus be headed for a remarkably similar fate: a gradual descent into an unvarnished form of dictatorship.

There could hardly be a more striking illustration of this prediction than recent developments in Turkey. For decades, Turkey was a relatively clear-cut case of undemocratic liberalism: In a deeply religious country, a small, secular elite protected ethnic and religious minorities, resisting any attempt to pass laws inspired by Islam. Whenever a popularly elected government made small steps toward putting religion at the center of public life, the army was waiting in the wings to depose it. Then Erdogan managed to lead a seemingly moderate Islamic movement to political victory and to break the power of the secular elite. For some years, outside observers hoped that he would turn Turkey into a true democracy, allowing pious Muslims fuller participation in social and political life without violating the rights of secularists or religious minorities. But that hope gradually faded. Before long, Erdogan pushed illiberal legislation, from new restrictions on the sale of alcohol to increasingly extreme measures against critical journalists and academics.

The failed coup was no more than a final showdown between the two ugly sides of this coin. If the coup had succeeded, the victorious factions of the army would likely have reestablished some liberal freedoms, in part by reverting to a more secular vision of Turkey. At the same time, they would have done away with any pretense of democracy: The freedom to drink alcohol in the streets of Istanbul would have been purchased by an inability to speak one’s mind about the new military government.

91563718
A supporter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves a flag against an electronic billboard during a rally in Kizilay Square on July 18 in Ankara.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

 

When the coup failed, the outcome was not all that different. Long desperate to consolidate his rule, Erdogan seized the moment. In the first three days after the coup, he suspended close to 30,000 members of the civil service, revoked the licenses of 21,000 teachers, took over 6,000 soldiers into custody, and commanded all 1,577 deans of Turkish universities to submit their resignations. The purge is continuing apace: All in all, over 26,000 people have been arrested in the weeks since the coup. Elected as a people’s tribune, Erdogan has now amassed so much power that he can well afford to ignore the views of his electorate. The form of illiberal democracy he has instituted for the past decade has finally taken off its mask and revealed the ugly face of dictatorship.

The Roots of the Crisis

By historical standards, liberal democracies have been extraordinarily stable. Poor countries have trouble sustaining democratic rule. Some rich countries, especially those with vast oil wealth, have always been controlled by autocrats. But once a wealthy country has successfully transitioned to democracy, its form of government is locked in. This is about as remarkable a fact as political science has on offer. Never in history has a wealthy, consolidated democracy collapsed. Not once.

By historical standards, liberal democracies have been extraordinarily stable. Poor countries have trouble sustaining democratic rule. Some rich countries, especially those with vast oil wealth, have always been controlled by autocrats. But once a wealthy country has successfully transitioned to democracy, its form of government is locked in. This is about as remarkable a fact as political science has on offer. Never in history has a wealthy, consolidated democracy collapsed. Not once.

That remarkable fact has made it easy to ascribe the stability of the West’s political institutions to its fundamental attributes: universal suffrage, rule of law, checks and balances, individual rights. Each country gives its own spin on the genealogy of its particular political settlement. Americans tend to thank the genius of their founders, the French the principled visionaries on the barricades, Brits the fortuitous rise of pluralistic institutions owed to the blood-soaked compromises struck between lord and liege. But for all of the specificities of national myth and memory, the triumphalist upshot is remarkably similar in every democratic country. The question of the best regime form, which had animated the writings of thinkers from Socrates to Rousseau, has supposedly been solved. The end of history has arrived.

This happy story overlooks a number of facts that have been so formative of our political world that it is easy to forget just how extraordinary they, too, are by historical standards. All through the history of democratic stability, the incomes of ordinary citizens grew rapidly. All through the history of democratic stability, a democracy has been the most powerful country in the world. And all through the history of democratic stability, democracies have been highly homogeneous.

Over the last decades, each of these factors stopped being the case. Living standards stagnated. The rise of China is threatening American hegemony. Democracies in North America and Western Europe are more diverse than they have ever been before.

History cannot tell us how liberal democracies perform under those circumstances, so we are only just starting to gather the first shreds of evidence for what the effects of those transformations might be. What little we know suggests that the answer is not going to be pretty.

 

* * *

Since the founding of the American republic, the median citizen in every generation could pride himself on being much wealthier than his parents and had strong reason to believe that his children would be even better off. Indeed, ever since the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence, a clear majority of American citizens ended their lives with comforts they could barely have imagined when they were growing up. From 1935 to 1960, the standard of living of the median voter just about doubled. From 1960 to 1985, it just about doubled again. From 1985 to 2010, it flatlined.

Most Americans have not experienced real economic gains since George H.W. Bush was elected.

In the years since then, America’s gross domestic product, the Dow Jones, and the incomes of the rich have all recovered from the depths of the Great Recession. But the incomes of most Americans have barely improved. Most citizens have not experienced real economic gains since George H.W. Bush was elected.

If statistics lie, it’s often because averages hide. The stagnation of living standards conceals the phenomenal increase in income and wealth for the richest Americans. It also conceals the remarkable decline in income and wealth for the poorest Americans. That is true for many Latino and black Americans, who are more likely than other demographic groups to be doing the kinds of blue-collar jobs that have seen wages decrease in real terms. But it is felt especially keenly among white Americans with high expectations, limited qualifications, and declining hourly wages—that is to say, among some of Donald Trump’s most passionate supporters.

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Supporters of Donald Trump at a campaign rally at Grant Park Event Center in Westfield, Indiana, July 12.

Tasos Katopodis/AFP/Getty Images

 

The appeal of illiberal democracy cannot be understood in abstraction from this economic story. The fortunes of the populists do not necessarily rise and fall in step with the business cycle or even the unemployment rate. Nor need it always be the very poorest, or those who stand to suffer the most immediate losses because of globalization, who flock toward them in the greatest numbers. The story that matters is broader than that: The basic deal offered by political elites since the inception of democracy was to provide ordinary people with large increases in their standard of living from one generation to the next. So long as that deal held, the people were willing to defer to the political class. Now that the deal has been broken—broken spectacularly—they no longer feel bound by their side of the bargain. And so many of them are willing to entertain the hope that the illiberal demagogues who are courting them so assiduously will serve them better than the unfaithful lot that is now in power.

* * *

In most parts of Europe, democracy took firm root only after the killings and expulsions of World War II turned countries that had once been home to a large number of minorities deeply homogeneous. Democracy in those places is a creation of the nation state, and for outsiders, membership in those nations has always remained difficult and incomplete. A German or an Italian or a Swede was thought to look a particular way and to descend from a particular ethnic stock. Though not every German is blond, and not every Italian has olive skin, it went without saying that somebody who is black or Asian or Middle Eastern could be neither German nor Italian.

The story was a little more complicated in the United States and in Canada, where membership in the nation had always been based on mutual aspirations for the future rather than descent from common ancestors. But even in the U.S., the lip service to diversity was secretly—and not so secretly—predicated on two important facts: The social and economic superiority of whites was not to be called into question. And particular ethnic or religious groups could not be associated with physical threats to the safety of American citizens. What happened in the brief intervals when these background conditions did not obtain speaks for itself. During World War I, some descendants of German immigrants were suspected of disloyalty; a flourishing German American associational life quickly disappeared. World War II was much worse: In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were classified as enemy aliens and promptly interned.

The brittle foundations of ethnic inclusion explain why tensions over immigration and racial identity have been running especially high over the last two decades. In Europe, places like Germany and Italy had to admit to themselves during that period that they were indeed “countries of immigration” and that they would not be able to go on forever denying immigrants of Turkish or Middle Eastern descent full membership in the nation. Meanwhile, in North America, many members of ethnic and religious minorities ascended to unprecedented positions of power and prestige, threateningthe majority’s comfortable assumption of perennial dominance.

On both sides of the Atlantic, these transformations—which are cultural as much as they are economic or political—made the ethnic majority deeply resentful. The fuse was now in place, and it was connected to a ton of TNT. The terrorists just had to light it.

This is the most important political effect of the series of spectacular Islamist terror attacks on liberal democracies in the West that began on 9/11 and has continued to wreak havoc since: The constant terror threat gradually transformed a division of “us” versus “them” that had once been one of many important facts of politics into the primary line of political division and mobilization.

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An anti-Muslim group in Austin, Texas, in 2015.

Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images

 

In every country and epoch, political life is defined by the key questions that determine which side you are on. In some countries these questions are socio-economic: Are you for the industrialists or the landowners, for the proletariat or the bourgeoisie? In other countries, the key questions are religious or ethnic: Are you for the Protestants or the Catholics, for the Luo or the Kikuyu?

These political “cleavages” can be a productive element of democratic life, a way of balancing the interests of different groups who mobilize to defend their own. But they always run the risk of turning so deep that people on both sides of the divide can no longer recognize each other as fellow citizens with legitimate interests. That is when victory at the polls starts to provide an excuse for subjugating a minority; when different groups might formally retain citizenship of the same country but the state becomes no more than a committee for advancing the interests of the ascendant faction. This is what the fallout from Islamist terrorism is now threatening to do across North America and Western Europe: A cleavage that was already fraught in most liberal democracies is becoming an instrument of tyranny.

 

These political “cleavages” can be a productive element of democratic life, a way of balancing the interests of different groups who mobilize to defend their own. But they always run the risk of turning so deep that people on both sides of the divide can no longer recognize each other as fellow citizens with legitimate interests. That is when victory at the polls starts to provide an excuse for subjugating a minority; when different groups might formally retain citizenship of the same country but the state becomes no more than a committee for advancing the interests of the ascendant faction. This is what the fallout from Islamist terrorism is now threatening to do across North America and Western Europe: A cleavage that was already fraught in most liberal democracies is becoming an instrument of tyranny.

Despite their hatred for each other, the populists and the terrorists thus live in a strange kind of symbiosis.

Despite their hatred for each other, the populists and the terrorists thus live in a strange kind of symbiosis. The more marginalized Muslims feel in Western societies, the easier ISIS finds it to recruit converts to its bloody cause. And the more homegrown terrorists kill innocents in the name of Islam, the easier it becomes for populists to incite voters against liberal democracy’s protections for ethnic and religious minorities. Seen in this light, the terror attack in Nice is yet another weapon in the armory that might allow Marine Le Pen to subvert liberté, egalité, and fraternité: It is yet another cause of fear in the population; yet another excuse to see politics from the vantage point of an ethnic in-group; and yet another example Le Pen can point to in claiming that Muslim immigrants simply do not fit into France.

The terrorists, the pious sentiment goes, will never have enough power to vanquish the principles of liberal democracy. That is true, so far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far. As the political fallout from the attack in Nice—and the attacks in Orlando and Brussels and Würzburg, Germany—demonstrate, it’s looking increasingly likely that we will let them win by doing their bidding for them.

The most pressing political question of our age is how we can stop that from happening. What reforms are needed to re-establish the social end economic foundations of liberal democracy? And how can we express liberal democratic values convincingly enough to win the battle of ideas against the likes of Donald Trump?

Regaining Our Conviction

Habituation breeds indifference. A turn of phrase that expressed a point with the help of a striking image no longer packs the same punch because we have grown inured to its literal meaning; linguists call this a dead metaphor. Driving to work in the sweet ride we bought a few months ago no longer gives us the same pleasure; economists call this hedonic adaptation. The person who once sent our heart racing enters the room and we barely notice it; grown-ups call this being married.

Something akin to this form of habituation has happened to our most fundamental political values. The ideals of liberal democracy are all around us. We know that the people are supposed to rule and that all citizens have a right to the same basic freedoms irrespective of their race, creed, or religion. But precisely because these ideas have surrounded us in a diffuse way for so long, we have begun to forget their meaning and their grandeur. “The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful,” John Stuart Mill presciently warned inOn Liberty, “is the cause of half their errors.”

So, while civics teachers dutifully recite the ideals of the Founding Fathers and while the political instincts of mainstream publications from Time to the Huffington Post are in some vague sense “liberal,” the intellectual energy is now on the side of liberalism’s opponents.

A few decades ago, right-wing critics of liberal democracy were mostly confined to the oddballs and nostalgics who stubbornly harkened back to some imagined golden age, whether it be the era of fascism in Europe or the era of Jim Crow in the United States. Their ideas were terrifying and their influence, at times, real. And yet it was clear to all that they were ultimately defunct, bound to become more and more ridiculous with every passing year.

Since the turn of the millennium, this has changed fundamentally. The assumption that far-right alternatives to liberal democracy are invariably a remnant from the past is, itself, a relic of a bygone era. Illiberal democracy, the form of rule the far right now advocates in most places from the United States to the United Kingdom and from France to Turkey, is in many ways a new invention—and its ambition is nothing less than to claim the future for itself. Its broad appeal and rapid spread, encapsulated so painfully in the week of July 11, 2016, demonstrates that this aspiration is not to be dismissed lightly. To ensure that the future does not belong to illiberal democracy, its opponents will have to do the hard work of political resistance—and be willing to overcome their own deep divisions to cooperate against a common enemy.

As in the 1920s, when liberal democracy first came under deadly fire across the world, this willingness to work together in the face of a grave far-right threat is far from assured. Nobody should be more scared of the rise of illiberal populists than the left. And yet, in both Europe and North America, much of the left increasingly thinks of “liberal” as a term of abuse. Indeed, a growing share of left-wing activists has gone from understandable anger at the many shortcomings of the status quo to an outright rejection of the foundational political values of our age. Assuming that ideals that are flagrantly contradicted in practice can’t be worth very much in theory either, they too are giving up on the core tenets of liberal democracy.

If Donald Trump rails against Muslims in his speeches then, they believe, it is time to accept that freedom of speech is an outmoded concept. And if the police kill innocent black Americans then, they believe, the ideal of state neutrality between different ethnic groups is no more than a tool for white domination. The society they envisage is not one in which liberal democratic ideals are more perfectly realized than they are now—but rather one in which these ideals are sacrificed in the name of social justice.

The most foolhardy parts of the left even go so far as to see the rise of their enemies as a strategic opportunity. Believing that things will have to get worse before they can get better, their most urgent desire is to smash up the status quo. Unwilling to recognize any real difference between the policies favored by the likes of Trump and the policies favored by the likes of Clinton, they prefer the agent of chaos, however violent, to the defender of the current political order, however decent.

And so it is centrist politicians who have now become the last explicit defenders of liberalism. But, squeezed between a blatantly authoritarian right and an increasingly illiberal left, they have begun to seek refuge in new forms of technocratic rule. In the short run, the undemocratic bulwarks they are building against illiberal sentiments are protecting the rights of minorities. But their lack of urgency and the dearth of their vision mean that they do not even attempt to tackle the root causes of the populist rise, like the stagnation in living standards. In the long run, this is very dangerous: The exclusion of the people from the political process—especially when coupled with an unwillingness (or an inability) to pass real economic reform—will only serve to inflame illiberal passions, turning even more citizens against liberal democracy.

Among the many worrying signs of our time, perhaps the most concerning is that those who believe both in liberalism and in democracy, both in popular rule and in individual rights, have increasingly taken on a defensive crouch. They seek to rescue what they know to be valuable, and yet they have lost their ability to articulate what part of contemporary reality is worth fighting for and why. And so many of them wind up focusing their energies on shoring up the bad as well as the good parts of our crumbling political order: Rather than imagining what social and economic policies might help to diffuse popular anger and fulfill the promises of liberal democracy, they seek their salvation in immobility.

To fight the terrorists and the populists, to prevail both against the plotters of undemocratic coups and the illiberal tribunes propelled into office by the intense anger of a volatile age, will require liberal democrats to stand tall for their values—and to develop the radical imagination that is desperately needed if we are to recreate the conditions that once allowed for the system’s stability. New economic policies are needed to ensure that ordinary people capture much more of the world’s economic gains than they have in the past decades. Meanwhile, democratic institutions designed for the 18th century need to restore the promise of popular rule by incorporating the technologies of the 21st century.

By the cruel standards of human history, the last few decades have been uncommonly serene. It is looking less and less likely that we will one day be able to say the same thing of the next few decades. Radical change seems to lurk just around the corner. The question is no longer whether we can preserve our political order in its current form. (We probably can’t.) It is what reforms are needed to ensure that the precious, fragile combination of liberalism and democracy does not entirely vanish from the face of the earth. If the center is to hold—if we are to rescue what is best about our imperfect political order—a lot will have to change.

 

 

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Credit Daniel Zender

“I THINK you’d have riots.” So said Donald J. Trump last week, when he was asked by CNN what he thought would happen if he arrived at the Republican Convention this summer a few delegates short of the 1,237 needed to win outright and didn’t set forth from Cleveland as the party’s nominee.

It is stunning to contemplate, particularly for those of us who are lifelong Republicans, but we now live in a time when the organizing principle that runs through the campaign of the Republican Party’s likely nominee isn’t adherence to a political philosophy — Mr. Trump has no discernible political philosophy — but an encouragement to political violence.

Mr. Trump’s supporters will dismiss this as hyperbole, but it is the only reasonable conclusion that his vivid, undisguised words allow for. As the examples pile up, we should not become inured to them. “I’d like to punch him in the face,” Mr. Trump said about a protester in Nevada. (“In the old days,” Mr. Trump fondly recalled, protesters would be “carried out in a stretcher.”)

Of another protester, Mr. Trump said, “Maybe he should have been roughed up.” In St. Louis, Mr. Trump sounded almost wistful: “Nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.” About protesters in general, he said: “There used to be consequences. There are none anymore. These people are so bad for our country. You have no idea folks, you have no idea.”

Talk like this eventually finds its way into action. And so on March 10, a Trump supporter named John McGraw, was charged with assault, battery and disorderly conduct, after a protester was sucker-punched as he was being hauled by security guards out of a Trump rally in North Carolina the day before. When interviewed afterward Mr. McGraw said, “The next time we see him, we might have to kill him.”

And Donald Trump’s reaction? He said he was considering paying Mr. McGraw’s legal fees. “He obviously loves his country,” Mr. Trump added, “and maybe he doesn’t like seeing what’s happening to the country.”

Welcome to Donald Trump’s America.

Mr. Trump’s comments, startling in a leading presidential candidate, have raised widespread concern about the path we find ourselves on. But concern about political violence, mob rule and unchecked passion is hardly new in American history.

In 1838, as a 28-year-old state legislator, Abraham Lincoln delivered an address at the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Ill. The speech was given in the aftermath of the lynching of a mixed-race boatman and the burning of a black abolitionist newspaper editor. Lincoln warned that a “mobocratic spirit” and “wild and furious passions” posed a threat to republican institutions. He also alerted people to the danger of individuals — “an Alexander, a Caesar or a Napoleon?” — who, in their search for glory and power, might pose a threat to American self-government.

“Is it unreasonable, then, to expect that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time spring up among us?” Lincoln asked.

The antidote to this threat, Lincoln argued, was to cultivate a “political religion” that emphasized “reverence for the laws.” Passion was our enemy, he warned; it had to be contained. “Reason — cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason — must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense.”

Lincoln was a keen student and great interpreter of the founders, and of course the founders also thought deeply about how a self-governing people could restrain political passions. In his book “Madison’s Metronome,” the scholar Greg Weiner points out that James Madison’s lifelong concern was that majorities would be governed by emotion rather than reason, the “cool” faculty. In Mr. Weiner’s words, Madison “portrayed passion through metaphors that suggested rapid and uncontrolled spread, including those of fires, fevers, pestilence and contagions.”

Before the Constitutional Convention, Madison undertook an extraordinarily thorough study of various forms of government. How might the Constitution protect us from what Aristotle called “the insolence of demagogues”?

Among the defects of ancient and modern republics, Madison wrote, were “popular assemblages, so quickly formed, so susceptible of contagious passions, so exposed to the misguidance of eloquent and ambitious leaders, and so apt to be tempted by the facility of forming interested majorities, into measures unjust and oppressive to the minor parties.”

Which brings us back to Donald Trump. No one would mistake Mr. Trump for eloquent, but he is a highly effective communicator in a political culture that is now almost indistinguishable from the reality TV culture from which he emerged. But the Trump phenomenon isn’t just about coarsening and stupidity: His political practices are precisely what the founders feared and Lincoln warned against.

When he was asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper about the sucker-punching episode, Mr. Trump responded by saying, “People come with tremendous passion and love for this country, and when they see protest — in some cases — you know, you’re mentioning one case, which I haven’t seen, I heard about it, which I don’t like. But when they see what’s going on in this country, they have anger that’s unbelievable. They have anger. They love this country.” In many respects, he added, “it’s a beautiful thing.”

This is an increasingly familiar refrain. When two brothers beat up a homeless Latino man last summer and cited Mr. Trump’s words as their justification — “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported,” one of the men reportedly told the police — Mr. Trump responded by saying that while this was a shame, “I will say that people who are following me are very passionate.” His supporters, he said, “love this country and they want this country to be great again — they are passionate.”

Note Mr. Trump’s linkage of violence, passion, anger and love of country. After the sucker-punch, Mr. Trump, while himself protesting that he doesn’t condone violence, initially indicated that he might subsidize it. He said that he hoped that he hadn’t done anything to create a tone where violence was encouraged, even though he does just that. Last week, his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was accused of manhandling a reporter and then sought to discredit her on Twitter and elsewhere. Mr. Trump went out of his way to praise Mr. Lewandowski during his victory speech in Florida.

For Mr. Trump, this is all of a piece. His entire campaign, from its very first moments, has been built on stoking anger, grievances and resentment against people of other races, religions and nationalities. Mexicans coming to America are rapists and drug dealers. Muslims hate America and need to be barred from it. Syrian refugees are “Trojan horses.”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Trump’s politics of hate is now metastasizing into violence. He incites people — not all people to be sure, but enough. On social media in particular, one sees how he gives his supporters permission to express dark and ugly sentiments that existed before but were generally kept hidden from view.

Max Boot, a Republican Trump critic who was a foreign policy adviser to Marco Rubio’s campaign, says that he has never experienced as much anti-Semitism as he has since the start of the Trump campaign. There are no filters anymore, no restraints, no cultural guardrails. Now, under the sway of Trumpism, what was once considered shameful asserts itself openly. As we contemplate this, it is worth recalling that the membrane separating what the Scottish novelist John Buchan called “the graces of civilization” from ”the rawness of barbarism” is thinner and more fragile than we sometimes imagine.

The reasons for the rise of Mr. Trump are undoubtedly complicated and will be studied for decades to come. That Mr. Trump’s rise has occurred in the Republican Party is painful for those of us who are Republicans. That more and more Republicans are making their own accommodation with or offering outright support for Mr. Trump — governors like Chris Christie and Rick Scott, the former candidate Ben Carson and the former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich — makes things even worse. Because we can no longer deny what Mr. Trump is and what he represents. The prospect of turning the party apparatus over to such a person is sickening.

The founders, knowing history and human nature, took great care to devise a system that would prevent demagogues and those with authoritarian tendencies from rising up in America. That system has been extraordinarily successful. We have never before faced the prospect of a political strongman becoming president.

Until now.

Karen Armstrong on Sam Harris and Bill Maher: “It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps”

Blaming religion for violence, says Karen Armstrong, allows us to dismiss the violence we’ve exported worldwide

TOPICS: BOOKS, RELIGION, KAREN ARMSTRONG, BILL MAHER, SAM HARRIS, ISLAMOPHOBIA, TERRORISM,RICHARD DAWKINS, EDITOR’S PICKS, FIELDS OF BLOOD, ISLAM, ,
Karen Armstrong on Sam Harris and Bill Maher: "It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps"
Sam Harris, Karen Armstrong, Bill Maher (Credit: Knopf/Michael Lionstar/HBO)

Karen Armstrong has written histories of Buddhism and Islam. She has written a history of myth. She has written a history of God. Born in Britain, Armstrong studied English at Oxford, spent seven years as a Catholic nun, and then, after leaving the convent, took a brief detour toward hard-line atheism. During that period, she produced writing that, as she later described it, “tended to the Dawkinsesque.”

Since then, Armstrong has emerged as one of the most popular — and prolific — writers on religion. Her works are densely researched, broadly imagined and imbued with a sympathetic curiosity. They deal with cosmic topics, but they’re accessible enough that you might (just to give a personal example) spend 15 minutes discussing Armstrong books with a dental hygienist in the midst of a routine cleaning.

In her new book, “Fields of Blood,” Armstrong lays out a history of religious violence, beginning in ancient Sumer and stretching into the 21st century. Most writers would — wisely — avoid that kind of breadth. Armstrong harnesses it to a larger thesis. She suggests that when people in the West dismiss violence as a backward byproduct of religion, they’re being lazy and self-serving. Blaming religion, Armstrong argues, allows Westerners to ignore the essential role that violence has played in the formation of our own societies — and the essential role that our societies have played in seeding violence abroad.

Reached by phone in New York, Armstrong spoke with Salon about nationalism, Sept. 11 and the links between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

Over the course of your career, you’ve developed something of a reputation as an apologist for religion. Is that a fair characterization? If so, why do you think faith needs defenders?

I don’t like the term “apologist.” The word “apologia” in Latin meant giving a rational explanation for something, not saying that you’re sorry for something. I’m not apologizing for religion in that derogatory sense.

After I left my convent I thought, “I’ve had it with religion, completely had it,” and I only fell into this by sheer accident after a series of career disasters. My encounters with other faith traditions showed me first how parochial my original understanding of religion had been, and secondly made me see my own faith in a different way. All the faith traditions have their own particular genius, but they also all have their own particular flaws or failings, because we are humans and we have a fabulous ability to foul things up.

The people who call me an apologist are often those who deride religion as I used to do, and I’ve found that former part of my life to have been rather a limited one.

Your new book is a history of religion and violence. You point out, though, that the concept of “religion” didn’t even exist before the early modern period. What exactly are we talking about, then, when we talk about religion and violence before modern times?

First of all, there is the whole business about religion before the modern period never having been considered a separate activity but infusing and cohering with all other activities, including state-building, politics and warfare. Religion was part of state-building, and a lot of the violence of our world is the violence of the state. Without this violence we wouldn’t have civilization. Agrarian civilization depended upon a massive structural violence. In every single culture or pre-modern state, a small aristocracy expropriated the serfs and peasants and kept them at subsistence level.

This massive, iniquitous system is responsible for our finest achievements, and historians tell us that without this iniquitous system we probably wouldn’t have progressed beyond subsistence level. Therefore, we are all implicated in this violence. No state, however peace-loving it claims to be, can afford to disband its army, so when people say religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history this is a massive oversimplification. Violence is at the heart of our lives, in some form or another.

How do ritual and religion become entangled with this violence?

Well, because state-building was imbued with religious ideology. Every state ideology before the modern period was essentially religious. Trying to extract religion from political life would have been like trying to take the gin out of a cocktail. Things like road-building were regarded as a sort of sacred activity.

Politics was imbued with religious feeling. The prophets of Israel, for example, were deeply political people. They castigated their rulers for not looking after the poor; they cried out against the system of agrarian injustice. Jesus did the same, Mohammed and the Quran do the same. Sometimes, religion permeates the violence of the state, but it also offers the consistent critique of that structural and martial violence.

Is it possible to disentangle that critiquing role from the role of supporting state structures?

I think in the West we have peeled them apart. We’ve separated religion and politics, and this was a great innovation. But so deeply embedded in our consciousness is the desire to give our lives some meaning and significance that no sooner did we do this than we infused the new nation-state with a sort of quasi-religious fervor. If you regard the sacred as something for which we are willing to give our lives, in some senses the nation has replaced God, because it’s now not acceptable to die for religion, but it is admirable to die for your country.

Certainly in the United States, your national feeling, whether people believe in God or not, has a great spiritual or transcendent relevance — “God bless America,” for example; the hand on the heart, the whole ethos. We do the same in the U.K. with our royal weddings. Even in our royal weddings, the aristocracy are all in military uniform.

Ah, that’s a great observation.

In your great parades, you know, when a president dies, there’s the army there.

The religiously articulated state would persecute heretics. They were usually protesting against the social order rather than arguing about theology, and they were seen as a danger to the social order that had to be eliminated. That’s been replaced. Now we persecute our ethnic minorities or fail to give them the same rights.

I’d like to go deeper into this comparison between nationalism and religion. Some people would say that the ultimate problem, here, is a strain of irrationality in our society. They would argue that we need to purge this irrationality wherever we see it, whether it appears in the form of religion or nationalism. How would you respond?

I’m glad you brought that up, because nationalism is hardly rational. But you know, we need mythology in our lives, because that’s what we are. I agree, we should be as rational as we possibly can, especially when we’re dealing with the fates of our own populations and the fates of other peoples. But we don’t, ever. There are always the stories, the myths we tell ourselves, that enable us to inject some kind of ultimate significance, however hard we try to be rational.

Communism was said to be a more rational way to organize a society, and yet it was based on a complete myth that became psychotic. Similarly, the French revolutionaries were imbued with the spirit of the Enlightenment and erected the goddess of reason on the altar of Notre Dame. But in that same year they started the Reign of Terror, where they publicly beheaded 17,000 men, women and children.

We’re haunted by terrible fears and paranoias. We’re frightened beings. When people are afraid, fear takes over and brings out all kind of irrationality. So, yes, we’re constantly striving to be rational, but we’re not wholly rational beings. Purging isn’t an answer, I think. When you say “purging,” I have visions of some of the catastrophes of the 20th century in which we tried to purge people, and I don’t like that kind of language.

Let’s try a different analogy: Perhaps our search for narrative and meaning is a bit like a fire. It can go out of control and burn people pretty badly. Seeing this destruction, some people say we should just put out the fire whenever we can. There are others who argue that the fire will always be there, that it has benefits, and that we need to work with it to the best of our abilities. And you’re sort of in the latter camp, yes?

I would say so … If we lack meaning, if we fail to find meaning in our lives, we could fall very easily into despair. One of the forensic psychiatrists who have interviewed about 500 people involved in the 9/11 atrocity, and those lone-wolves like the Boston Marathon people, has found that one of the principal causes for their turning to these actions was a sense of lack of meaning; a sense of meaningless and purposelessness and hopelessness in their lives. I think lack of meaning is a dangerous thing in society.

There’s been a very strong void in modern culture, despite our magnificent achievements. We’ve seen the nihilism of the suicide bomber, for example. A sense of going into a void.

In “Fields of Blood,” you explore how the material needs of people can give rise to more abstract ideas. So, speaking about nihilism as something particular to the modern era: Are there political or social conditions that underlie this sense of meaninglessness?

Yes. The suicide bomber has been analyzed by Robert Pape of the University of Chicago, who has made a study of every single suicide bombing from 1980 to 2004. He has found that it’s always a response to the invasion of the homeland by a militarily superior power. People feel their space is invaded, and they resort to this kind of action because they can’t compete with the invaders. [Suicide bombing] was a ploy [first] used by the Tamil Tigers, who had no time for religion. Of the many Lebanese bombings [in the 1980s], only seven of them were committed by Muslims, three by Christians. The rest, some 17 or so, were committed by secularists and socialists coming in from Syria.

I think a sense of hopelessness is particularly evident in the suicide bombings of Hamas, where these young people live in refugee camps in Gaza, with really very little hope or very little to look forward to. People who talk to survivors of these actions found that the desire to die a heroic death, to go out in a blaze of glory and at least have some meaning in their lives and be venerated and remembered after their death, was the driving factor.

There’s a line in your book that struck me: “Terrorism is fundamentally and inherently political, even when other motives, religious, economic, and social, are involved. Terrorism is always about power.”

I think I’m quoting some terrorist specialist there.

Even when [terrorists] claim to be doing it for Allah, they’re also doing it for political motives. It’s very clear in bin Laden’s discourse. He talks about God and Allah and Islam and the infidels and all that, but he had very clear political aims and attitudes towards Saudi Arabia, towards Western involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. The way he talked always about Zionists and crusaders rather than Jews and Christians — these are political terms. Since the early 20th century the term “crusade” has come to stand for Western imperialism.

In the Hamas martyr videos, the young martyr will segue very easily from mentioning Allah the Lord of the world, and then within a couple of words he’s talking about the liberation of Palestine — it’s pure nationalism — and then he’s into a third-world ideology, saying his death will be a beacon of hope to all the oppressed people who are suffering at the hands of the Western world. These things are mixed up in that cocktail in his mind, but there’s always a strong political element, not just a going towards God.

In fact, all our motivation is always mixed. As a young nun, I spent years trying to do everything purely for God, and it’s just not possible. Our self-interest and other motivations constantly flood our most idealistic efforts. So, yes, terrorism is always about power — wanting to get power, or destroy the current power-holders, or pull down the edifices of power which they feel to be oppressive or corruptive in some way.

How direct is the link between colonial policies in the Middle East and a terrorist attack in New York or London?

I think — and I speak as a British person — when I saw the towers fall on September 11, one of the many, many thoughts that went through my head was, “We helped to do this.” The way we split up these states, created these nation-states that ISIS is pulling asunder, showed absolutely no regard for the people concerned. Nationalism was completely alien to the region; they had no understanding of it. The borders were cobbled together with astonishing insouciance and self-interest on the part of the British.

Plus, a major cause of unrest and alienation has always been humiliation. Islam was, before the colonial period, the great world power, rather like the United States today. It was reduced overnight to a dependent bloc and treated by the colonialists with frank disdain. That humiliation has rankled, and it would rankle, I think, here in the States. Supposing in a few decades you are demoted by China, it may not be so pretty here.

Every fundamentalist movement that I’ve studied, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation.

So, when we in the West talk about religion as the cause of this violence, how much are we letting ourselves off the hook, and using religion as a way to ignore our role in the roots of this violence?

We’re in danger of making a scapegoat of things, and not looking at our own part in this. When we look at these states and say, “Why can’t they get their act together? Why can’t they see that secularism is the better way? Why are they so in thrall to this benighted religion of theirs? What savages they are,” and so on, we’ve forgotten to see our implication in their histories.

We came to modernity under our own steam. It was our creation. It had two characteristics. One of these was independence — your Declaration of Independence is a typical modernizing document. And you have thinkers and scientists demanding free thought and independent thinking. This was essential to our modernity. But in the Middle East, in the colonized countries, modernity was a colonial subjection, not independence.

Without a sense of independence and a driving force for innovation, however many skyscrapers and fighter jets you may possess, and computers and technological gadgets, without these qualities you don’t really have the modern spirit. That modern spirit is almost impossible to acquire in countries where modernity has been imposed from outside.

When you hear, for example, Sam Harris and Bill Maher recently arguing that there’s something inherently violent about Islam — Sam Harris said something like “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas” — when you hear something like that, how do you respond?

It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe. This is the kind of thing people were saying about Jews in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe.

This is how I got into this, not because I’m dying to apologize, as you say, for religion, or because I’m filled with love and sympathy and kindness for all beings including Muslims — no. I’m filled with a sense of dread. We pride ourselves so much on our fairness and our toleration, and yet we’ve been guilty of great wrongs. Germany was one of the most cultivated countries in Europe; it was one of the leading players in the Enlightenment, and yet we discovered that a concentration camp can exist within the same vicinity as a university.

There has always been this hard edge in modernity. John Locke, apostle of toleration, said the liberal state could under no circumstances tolerate the presence of either Catholics or Muslims. Locke also said that a master had absolute and despotical power over a slave, which included the right to kill him at any time.

That was the attitude that we British and French colonists took to the colonies, that these people didn’t have the same rights as us. I hear that same disdain in Sam Harris, and it fills me with a sense of dread and despair.

Is Islamophobia today comparable to anti-Semitism?

Let’s hope not. It’s deeply enshrined in Western culture. It goes right back to the Crusades, and the two victims of the crusaders were the Jews in Europe and the Muslims in the Middle East.

Right, because Jews along the crusaders’ routes would be massacred —

They became associated in the European mind. We’ve recoiled, quite rightly, from our anti-Semitism, but we still have not recoiled from our Islamophobia. That has remained. It’s also very easy to hate people we’ve wronged. If you wrong somebody there’s a huge sense of resentment and distress. That is there, and that is part of it, too.

I remember speaking at NATO once, and a German high officer of NATO got up and spoke of the Turks resident in Germany, the migrant workers who do the work, basically, that Germans don’t want to do. He said, “Look, I don’t want to see these people. They must eat in their own restaurants. I don’t want to see them, they must disappear. I don’t want to see them in the streets in their distinctive dress, I don’t want to seem their special restaurants, I don’t want to see them.” I said, “Look, after what happened in Germany in the 1930s, we cannot talk like that, as Europeans, about people disappearing.”

Similarly, a Dutch person got up and said, “This is my culture, and these migrants are destroying and undermining our cultural achievements.” I said, “Now you, as the Netherlands, a former imperial power, are beginning to get a pinprick of the pain that happened when we went into these countries and changed them forever. They’re with us now because we went to them first; this is just the next stage of colonization. We made those countries impossible to live in, so here they are now with us.”

How should one respond to something like the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, or the threat of terrorism that originates in Muslim countries?

Saudi Arabia is a real problem, there’s no doubt about it. It has been really responsible, by using its massive petrol dollars, for exporting its extraordinarily maverick and narrow form of Islam all over the world. Saudis are not themselves extremists, but the narrowness of their religious views are antithetical to the traditional pluralism of Islam.

We’ve turned a blind eye to what the Saudis do because of oil, and because we see them as a loyal ally, and because, during the Cold War, we approved of their stance against Soviet influence in the Middle East.

Fundamentalism represents a rebellion against modernity, and one of the hallmarks of modernity has been the liberation of women. There’s nothing in the Quran to justify either the veiling or the seclusion of women. The Quran gave women rights of inheritance and divorce, legal rights we didn’t have in the West until the 19th century.

That’s what I feel about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. It’s iniquitous, and it’s certainly not Quranic.

Where do you, as someone outside of a tradition, get the authority to say what is or isn’t Quranic?

I talk to imams and Muslims who are in the traditions.

I think it’s easy to say, “Well the text isn’t binding” when you see something in there that you don’t like. But when you see something in the text that you do want to uphold, it’s tempting to go, “Oh, look, it’s in the text.”

Oh, it is. We do it with all our foundation texts — you’re always arguing about the Constitution, for example. It’s what we do. Previously, before the modern period, the Quran was never read in isolation. It was always read from the viewpoint of a long tradition of complicated, medieval exegesis which actually reined in simplistic interpretation. That doesn’t apply to these freelancers who read “Islam for Dummies” …

– and then do with it what they will.

Yes.

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory