Notes on the Great Realignment

One of these days, I would like to cadge an invitation to a strategy meeting of #TheResistance. Not the pussy-behatted feminoid Hollywood chapter of #TheResistance. Nothing could be more boring, or more depressing, than that.

But I would like to get a glimpse into the engine room of the more-moral-than-thou rancid-Right confraternity. How are their troops dispatched? Whence do they receive their marching orders? Is it via the internet, or from some even more deliquescent medium of communication, that Pete Wehner and Parson David French and the rest of that fraternity receive the codebook of this week’s virtue signaling? I sometimes imagine Bill Kristol reposed among the debris of his machinations, like Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now,” muttering terrible imprecations to his mesmerized if batty acolytes.

I’ll probably never know, but it’s clear that they do employ some effective means of getting the message out. I was reminded of this over the last couple of days when I noticed that Anne Applebaum, Max Boot, and Gabriel Schoenfeld all showed up with essentially the same homework assignment.

Applebaum, writing for the Orange-Man-Bad Post, weighed in with a column taking the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to task for “overt racism and covert anti-Semitism,” for mounting “an all-out assault on his country’s legal and judicial institutions, on independent media, on academia and on culture,” and for supporting Christianity against “the Muslim hordes (who don’t exist).”

Above all, Applebaum is exercised that Orbán has managed to persuade some “British and American intellectuals to join his war against liberal democracy.” “Intellectuals of the right,” she explains, “are just as susceptible to the lure of exotic ideologies [as are left-wing intellectuals], and equally prone to admire foreign authoritarians who seem to achieve things that democracies, with their [sarcasm alert!] boring coalition politics and their tedious rule of law, cannot.”

Max Boot obviously had the same assignment. Also writing in the Washington Get-Trump, Max told his readers that “It’s bad enough that Trump is fawning over a leader who has destroyed democracy in his country. What’s more alarming is that . . . Trump is trying to emulate Orban’s sinister example.”

“Orbanism,” Boot explains,

is authoritarianism for the media age: Instead of sending jackbooted thugs to haul away his opponents to concentration camps, the Hungarian prime minister uses more subtle measures—he has demonized immigrants, catered to anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim prejudices, corrupted the judiciary, bought off the media, co-opted civil society, harassed and intimidated critics, and rewarded his cronies by allowing them to feed at the government trough. Trump’s actions in the few days since Orban’s visit show how he is attempting to apply Orbanism to the United States.

Really? I hadn’t noticed that, but then Boot thinks that Attorney General William Barr’s effort to get to the bottom of the Obama Administration’s effort to perpetrate a soft coup against Donald Trump is really an insidious effort to cover up “a Russian attack on the U.S. election.” ($100,000 of Russian Facebook ads doesn’t buy much in terms of electoral outcomes, but it does buy Max Boot’s credulousness.)

And a quick reality check on Orbán’s supposed anti-Semitism. What he is undeniably guilty of is anti-Sorosism, as in George Soros, the billionaire enemy of nations and the spirit of conservatism. At the same time, his government has passed a law against Holocaust denial (as Christopher Caldwell points out in an essay I will come to below), established a Holocaust Memorial Day, reopened Jewish cultural sites, and refused to cooperate with Jobbik, the leading opposition party, which had a history of anti-Semitic provocations. In fact, Orbán is anti-Semitic in the same sense that Donald Trump is anti-Semitic, which is to say, he is not anti-Semitic.

Totalitarian Democracy
Then there is “The Illiberal Temptation,” Gabriel Schoenfeld’s essay in The American Interest. Schoenfeld, like Applebaum and Boot, is deeply exercised by the spectacle of Viktor Orbán sticking up for Hungary. And like both Applebaum and Boot, he is especially horrified that some conservatives have given aid and succor not only to Orbán but also—imagine!—to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and—horror of horrors—to Donald Trump.

Schoenfeld gets extra credit for perverse hermeneutical ingenuity. “By some strange historical inversion,” he writes, attacks on the political consensus that he, G. Schoenfeld, supports, are coming as much from the Right as from the Left. By way of confirmation, he cites Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed and Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (which I published at Encounter Books). According to Schoenfeld, such writers, by criticizing the failures of the unaccountable, sclerotic but nonetheless all-pervasive bureaucracy into which the liberal consensus (which includes that wholly owned subsidiary, Conservative, Inc.) has devolved—by criticizing this Leviathan, Schoenfeld says, such writers are employing the same argument that the Frankfurt School Marxist Herbert Marcuse deployed when he condemned the “repressive tolerance” afforded by liberal democratic societies. There is “good” tolerance and “bad” tolerance, Marcuse said: “good tolerance” is left-wing “tolerance” (i.e., intolerance), “bad tolerance” is anything from the Right, e.g., the sort of tolerance abroad in the United States circa 1965.

As an exercise in argumentative audacity, Schoenfeld’s argument deserves some sort of award. But the truth is that the guiding spirit of Legutko’s book (and I believe the same can be said for Deneen’s) is not Herbert Marcuse but Alexis de Tocqueville, especially his analysis of “democratic despotism” which flows from what we today would call the “deep state” or the  “administrative state.”

Among the epigraphs that preface his book, Legutko features a famous bit from Democracy in America that outlines this threat.

I think then that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything which ever before existed in the world. I am trying myself to choose an expression which will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it, but in vain . . . I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. . . . Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood; it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing.

It is interesting to note that the first part of this passage also serves as an epigraph for Jacob Talmon’s classic The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (out of print, but not, I hope, for long). Talmon makes a critical distinction between liberal and totalitarian democracies. The essential difference between the two, he writes, is in their “different attitudes to politics.” The liberal approach

assumes politics to be a matter of trial and error, and regards political systems as pragmatic contrivances of human ingenuity and spontaneity. It also recognizes a variety of levels of personal and collective endeavor, which are altogether outside the sphere of politics.

By contrast, the totalitarian version of democracy is “based upon the assumption of a sole and exclusive truth in politics. It may be called political Messianism in the sense that it postulates a preordained, harmonious and perfect scheme of things, to which men are irresistibly driven, and at which they are bound to arrive.”

Communism was one form of this Messianism. The liberal consensus that Francis Fukuyama described in The End of History is another, kinder, gentler form. And it is precisely that liberalism—the increasingly bureaucratic and illiberal liberalism espoused by the administrative state—that politicians like Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, and Jair Bolsonaro have arisen to challenge.

Talmon was on to something deep, I believe, when he identified “the paradox of freedom” as the recognition that freedom is unfree so long as it is wed to “an exclusive pattern of social existence, even if this pattern aims at the maximum of social justice and security.” The key is this: Do we take “men as they are” and look to politics to work from there? Or do we insist upon treating men “as they were meant to be, and would be, given the proper conditions”?

The former describes the traditional, liberal view of freedom. The latter describes what Talmon describes as “totalitarian democracy.” As Talmon notes, a classic source for the latter view is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In The Social Contract, Rousseau says that anyone who would “dare to undertake the institution of a government must think himself capable, as it were, of changing human nature” (my emphasis). Contrast that hubristic ambition with James Madison’s acknowledgment that different men have different and competing interests and that the “first object” of government is to protect those differences, that “diversity of faculties.”

“Orbanism” Rightly Understood
In The Demon in Democracy, Ryszard Legutko makes a similar distinction by means of a hyphen, delineating the ad hoc, trial-and-error nature of traditional liberal democracy from the the administrative apparatus of “liberal-democracy.” John O’Sullivan, in his forward to the English translation of Legutko’s book, puts it thus:

One of the most crucial differences between these two regimes is openness. Liberal democracy is a set of rules designed to ensure that government rests on the consent of the governed. Except within the broadest limits, it does not inherently dictate what policies should emerge from government or what social arrangements should be tolerated or prohibited. It is open to a wide range of policy outcomes and willing to accept a genuine diversity of social arrangements, including traditional ones. Here the people rule both as voters and as citizens making free choices. Liberal-democracy, however [note the hyphenated form], has policies and prohibitions built into its ideological structure. It is not really open to institutions and policies that run counter to its “liberationist” instincts. It increasingly restricts their freedom to maneuver on anything from parental rights to national sovereignty. It is even hostile to some fundamental values of liberalism such as free speech. Accordingly it sometimes comes up against the wishes of the voters expressed in elections and referenda.

Witness, for example, the resistance to the election of Donald Trump and the embrace of Brexit by the Brits. (It is still, after three years, unclear whether the British people will have their way or whether they will be made to continue in their vassalage by the coterie of transnational progressives, British as well as continental, who run the bureaucracy in Europe.)

In a long and brilliant essay in The Claremont Review of Books, Christopher Caldwell presents a picture of Viktor Orbán that is sharply at odds with the hostile portrait painted by critics like Applebaum, Boot, and Schoenfeld. Caldwell by no means papers over Orbán’s faults—the fact, for example, that he seems to have enriched himself and his friends while in office (a habit, by the way that he shares with many if not most politicians). But he also understands Orbán’s virtues. Writes Caldwell: “Orbán is blessed with almost every political gift—brave, shrewd with his enemies and trustworthy with his friends, detail-oriented, hilarious.”

In the last years of the Cold War, he stuck his neck out further than any young dissident in assailing the Soviet Union. That courage helped land him in the prime minister’s office for the first time in 1998, at age 35. He has a memory for parliamentary minutiae reminiscent of Bill Clinton. At a January press conference, he interrupted a speechifying reporter by saying, “If I’ve counted correctly, that’s six questions,” then answered them in sequence with references to historical per capita income shifts, employment rates, demographic projections, and the like.

His secret weapon, though, is his intellectual curiosity. As Irving Kristol did when he edited the Public Interest in the 1980s, Orbán urges his aides to take one day a week off to devote to their reading and writing. He does so himself.

One fruit of Orbán’s curiosity is his understanding of the existential peril that Hungary faces. Dismembered in the aftermath of World War I, oppressed first by the Nazis, then the Soviets, unsettled more recently by threat of untrammeled immigration, it now faces the transnational progressive threat of an encroaching European Union for which nationalities are atavistic impediments on the road to liberal paradise (at least for the winners in Brussels and Berlin).

As Orbán noted in a speech in 2015, “Hungary must protect its ethnic and cultural composition. I am convinced that Hungary has the right—and every nation has the right—to say that it does not want its country to change.” Caldwell describes this speech as “probably the most important by a Western statesman this century.” Why? Because it bluntly poses two opposing futures for Europe: Europe as a mosaic of distinct sovereign nations versus Europe as a herd of more-or-less progressive colonies defined by the spongy secular complacency of Brussels.

As Caldwell notes, Orbán has changed his mind about many things—“unregulated free markets above all.” The vaunted “level playing field” that free markets were said to provide were not in fact level, nor were the supposedly “neutral” institutions upon which they depended. For one thing they ignored, where they did not actively disparage, the local and particular filiations out of which real communities are wrought. (This is what Max Boot, among others, disparages as “blood and soil” rhetoric.) Then, too, the supposed neutrality is always a sham because, Caldwell points out, “someone must administer this project, and administration, though advertised as neutral, rarely is. Some must administer over others.” Not everyone gets to be Jean-Claude Juncker. Allowed to proceed unchecked, the bureaucratic liberal consensus would destroy Hungary qua Hungary, just as it would eventually destroy all nations qua nations. Viktor Orbán understands that.

So does Donald Trump. Max Boot warns that Trump is “attempting to apply Orbanism to the United States.” What do you suppose that means? Here is a list of a few recent initiatives undertaken by the president:

  • On Tuesday, he gave a speech in Louisiana marking first export shipment of liquified natural gas from a new $10 billion facility.
  • On Wednesday, he spoke in honor of police officers killed in the line of duty, demonstrating his commitment to law enforcement.
  • On Thursday, he delivered a major speech on immigration reform, outlining his ideas for stopping illegal immigration and inaugurating a system of legal immigration based on merit. America welcomes with open arms those immigrants who come with something to contribute to America, including the desire to assimilate and become Americans in spirit as well as mailing address.
  • On Friday, in a speech to national realtors—the country’s largest trade association—he spoke about how America’s economic boom was making it possible for more and more Americans to pursue the “American dream” of home ownership.

If any of these speeches is an instance of Trump’s following Orbán’s “sinister” example (as Boot charged), I for one applaud his course of action.

Donald Trump is a sort of dynamo. Has any president done more to keep his campaign promises? How much richer, most secure, freer are we today than we were under the watchful eye of Barack Obama? And note that the swamp-like areas of life that remain unfree are those areas still under the jurisdiction of such “progressive” phenomena as Title IX hysteria on college campuses and the spirit of censorship that has disrupted the culture of social media and other “woke” initiatives.

The real battle that has been joined—and it is a battle that is forging a great political realignment—is not between virtuous progressive knights riding the steeds of liberalism, on the one hand, and the atavistic forces of untutored darkness represented by “populism,” on the other.

The real battle is between two views of liberty. One is a parochial view that affirms tradition, local affection, and the subordination of politics to the ordinary business of life. The other is more ambitious but more abstract. It seeks nothing less than to boost us all up to that plane of enlightenment from which all self-interested actions look petty, if not criminal, and through which mankind as a whole (but not alas individual men) may hope for whatever salvation secularism leavened by utilitarianism may provide.

We are still in the opening sallies of the Great Realignment. Many old alliances will be broken, many new ones formed. I expect a lot of heat, and even more smoke. I hope that there will also be at least occasional flashes of light.

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Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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