In a column this week for The Washington Post, Michael Gerson laments the passing, at least in his imagination, of a time when America was interested in helping and cooperating with other nations. “Why is our political moment not just pathetic but also traumatic?” writes Gerson. He goes on to claim the presidency of Donald J. Trump has destroyed something precious and unique about the American character. Gerson draws upon the history of America’s involvement in World War II, backed by some beautiful words from former presidents to show what he understands as the immaculate diplomacy of Truman, Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy, and to call out what he deems the complete mess Trump is making.
Gerson writes that we have always understood there to be a “practical and moral role for America in the global defense of free governments and institutions,” and to a certain extent, I agree. But Gerson is wrong to suggest, as he does later in the article, that this moral role of America is now dismissed as “globalism.” To make matters worse, he argues Trump is “staggeringly ignorant,” “unfamiliar,” and “unmoved” by the brilliance and moral fortitude of his predecessors. Trump, asserts Gerson, sees America as “a nation like any other nation, defined by ethnicity and oriented toward narrow interests.”
Gerson’s words echo today’s establishment and patronizing leftist rhetoric of “this is not who we are.” His language is reactionary and based in emotionalism rather than logic and reason. They appear also to be inspired by what has become known as “virtue-signaling,”—a conspicuous morality that attacks the opponent as uncaring and cold-hearted without ever bothering to understand one’s opponent as he understands himself.
One of the major problems in Gerson’s article is that he either misunderstands or misrepresents what his opponents mean when they attack “globalism.” He writes that America is “the nation that liberated death camps, rebuilt our enemies, inspires dissidents, welcomes refugees, secures the peace on every contested frontier…this does not make us ‘globalists;’ it makes us Americans.” But opponents of globalism have not voiced absolute opposition to any of these things as a matter of principle. They have only argued that all of these very worthy activities must be secondary to the primary task of securing the liberty and security of our own people. If America is not safe and free, we can’t be a beacon of hope to anyone.
But Gerson’s purpose in the article is not to entertain fine distinctions. It is, rather, to attack and discredit Trump and his administration. To do that, Gerson has made a meaningless connection between globalism and America’s founding principles. Since Trump and his supporters do not follow the faulty ideas of globalism or consider that America has duties to the far corners of the world that take priority over those here at home, Gerson wants to suggest that something is off with them. Something is wanting and inhuman in them, he seems to imply. He does this by equating globalist ideas and policies with the very foundation of America and, in effect, he has indirectly called Trump, as well as his supporters, un-American.
He’s wrong in his conclusions and wrong on his facts. America’s founding principles are not based on a care and concern with the liberty and equality of all the peoples of the world. On the contrary, America was founded to secure the liberty and sovereignty of the American people. Our Declaration of Independence staked a claim on behalf of the American people, which is rooted in their universal human equality, but depends upon them to actualize it. This is everything that globalism is not.
The globalist mind desires destruction of borders, elimination of American exceptionalism, the instituting of “global citizenship,” and ultimately, the annihilation of differences among cultures. At its core, globalism is collectivist and driven solely by an overarching ideology that does not distinguish between universal oughts and particular political realities. It does not allow for individuality, and just like Gerson’s rhetorical appeal, it relies on evoking emotions based on a deeply false perception of what can be accomplished in the here and now.
Inadvertently, Gerson manages to pose an important question: What does it mean to be American? In order even to partially answer that question, we first have to affirm there is such a thing as an American identity and that it is something unique and distinct from other identities. “Being American” has to entail some difference between a citizen who belongs to another nation, or is an apostle of the foundational principles of another nation. If Gerson wishes to protect and preserve American identity, since Trump is supposedly eroding it, then a good start would be to not speak in favor of globalism.
But this is the name of the intellectual game today: contradiction. The more theoretical contradictions you pile up, the more confused the consumers of media will be. The people will have a harder time recognizing a false argument, and the resulting confusion will only be appear to be untangled by an appeal to emotion, which may result in anger or sympathy. It’s an interesting strategy for a guy who also likes to accuse Trump of demagoguery.
Whatever may be the outcome of these faux debates, it must be recognized and acknowledged that we are facing a collective crisis of language. Every word means something other than what it claims to mean, and Gerson’s attempt to equate American ideals with globalism is just the latest example. As consumers of media, it is up to us to be vigilant and skeptical of what we see and read. And we have every reason to expect that in politics, especially, there is a massive effort underfoot to confuse and dupe us about the meaning of America.
It is perfectly fine to disagree with Trump and his approach to diplomacy. Arguments about the wisdom or the lack of wisdom regarding a particular policy are legitimate and fair. But such disagreements and the arguments supporting them have to be grounded in real claims about the meaning of Americanism. Gerson’s argument falls flat because of its misrepresentation both of Trump and of the meaning of globalist ideology.
More than an attack on Trump, Gerson’s article is an example of shoddy research, weak argumentation, and just plain bad journalism.