Clinton’s campaign made a devastating error by failing to recognize the appeal of illiberalism. The strategy of their ad campaign, which featured lengthy snippets of the president-elect at his most illiberal, presupposed a general commitment to liberal democratic values. It is in any case a familiar point from George Lakoff’s 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant, that one should not repeat the opposition’s rhetorical frames even if it is to condemn them. Instead, one should provide an alternative positive vision, in this case of liberal democratic values. Anything else is campaign money spent on advertising for the opposition.
From a perspective that regards tradition, identity, or religion as the chief sources of value, liberal democracy is an existential threat to what gives meaning to human life. If liberal democracy’s disturbances of the social order bring no obvious benefit, materially or spiritually, to those to whom the losses have been most deeply felt, we can hardly expect universal support for its values.--Jason Stanley "On the Question of the Stability of Democracy."
Unlike most responses to the Trump victory, Jason Stanley's essay confronts the uncomfortable fact that a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, which was supposed to inaugurate a liberal era, liberal values (rule of law, open society, free trade, free movement of peoples, mutual tolerance, etc.) are rejected by large portions of the population in the liberal heartland (Stateside and in various bits of Europe). Unlike most commentators, Stanley does not treat the rejectionists as fools or as irrational nor as fundamentally immoral. He recognizes, that the forms of illiberalism that are, as it were, homegrown, are the product of liberal society. Indeed, Liberalism disrupts and undermines many sources of value -- I would just add to his list: a sense of place, community, and social order --, and this loss generates rejection of liberalism.
Stanley, thus, opens up discussion of the central tension within liberalism: the rule of law reduces all kinds of uncertainty and it is morally grounded, in part, in the reasonable expectations this stability generates. (It is also grounded in norms of equality and impartiality.) But these expectations, in turn, are undermined by the permanent flux found in liberal society (due to trade, technological disruption, and eased transportation); liberal society undermines all kinds of expectations. Liberalism is, in fact, especially noxious to expectations that take forms of hierarchy for granted. The problem is, thus, not the "lack of obvious benefit, materially or spiritually," -- for many of the enemies of liberalism benefit materially from it -- but the permanent (and justified) fear of violation of expectations (about, say, one's place in social hierarchy or one's judgment of other people's worth).
After all, it is not those that do not benefit at all from the status quo that turn to authoritarianism. But rather those that fear further disruptions to their privileges and advantages. It is pretty clear that on the whole, Trump's supporters were not the poorest or most vulnerable in society, for example, but those that have reasons to fear further change. Liberalism finds it difficult to address such fears -- because to do so it would have to be different than it is -- and resorts to high minded moralism instead.
Of course, in practice, whatever the merits of liberal ideals, these are regularly compromised by the intervention of politics which advances some interests over others. In practice, of course, the liberal political order favors one interest or another: bailouts, subsidies, affirmative action, hand-outs, tax-breaks, social security, etc. With a few exceptions, every government program favors one group or another. The problem is not that the political process is messy and favors the well organized (and wealthy). Rather, the problem is that the liberal responses to the reality of the wheeling and dealing of ordinary politics tend to sound like especially noxious species of hypocrisy, which is, alas, the ruling sin of modern life. Obamacare is (whatever its merits) complicity in crony capitalism, but to reject it is immoral.* It is, thus, no surprise that (as Stanley notes, starting with Carl Schmitt) critics of liberalism constantly return to examples of liberal hypocrisy alongside liberal high minded rhetoric, which often de-legitimizes opponents ("deplorables").
So, for those that think that crony capitalism and group politics just are the way the world works, and fear further change, authoritarian closure of ordinary politics is (recall) an attractive option. As Stanley notes (and as I remarked during the campaign), constantly pointing out the illiberal features of Trump and his supporters just reinforces the attachment to these illiberal values and the authoritarians that defend them of their supporters.
I want to give a fresh example of how the purported defense of liberal values can back-fire. I will do so by criticizing an essay by somebody I admire greatly, Jacob T. Levy; this essay is popular among my friends and it is apparently published in the spirit of revitalizing liberalism (a theme that runs through my own reflections on these matters). I quote at length before I comment:
Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them. It’s something that was endemic to totalitarianism. Arendt analyzed the huge lies and blatant reversals of language associated with the Holocaust. Havel documented the pervasive little lies, lies that everyone knew to be lies, of late Communism. And Orwell gave us the vivid “2+2=5.”
Being made to repeat an obvious lie makes it clear that you’re powerless; it also makes you complicit. You’re morally compromised. Your ability to stand on your own moral two feet and resist or denounce is lost. Part of this is a general tool for making people part of immoral groups. One child makes a second abuse a third. The second then can’t think he’s any better than the first, the bully, and can’t inform. In a gang or the Mafia, your first kill makes you trustworthy, because you’re now dependent on the group to keep your secrets, and can’t credibly claim to be superior to them.
But in totalitarian and authoritarian politics, there seems to be something special about the lie, partly because so much of politics is about speech (and especially public speech) in the first place. Based on the evidence of his presidential campaign, I think Donald Trump understands this instinctively, and he relished the power to make his subordinates repeat his clearly outlandish lies in public. Every Sunday he provided fresh absurdities that Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, and Kellyanne Conway repeated on the talk shows. They didn’t persuade anyone who were strategically important to persuade; the audience for Meet the Press isn’t low-information, undecided, working-class voters, and the kinds of people who did watch those shows knew the claims were false. But making his surrogates repeat the lies compromised them; that tied them to him. And it degraded them, and made clear where power lay.--Jacob Levy "Authoritarianism and Post-Truth Politics" @Niskanencenter.org
By using the phrase 'totalitarian and authoritarian politics,' Levy distracts from the cardinal feature about the facts he presents: the submission to Trump is given willingly without resort to force or even the threat of force. Rather, it is the lure of power and favor that is, as it were, the lever which President-elect Trump exploits here. To criticize Levy here, is not to deny that I agree with much of the the final paragraph. Trump is degrading and compromising his subordinates by letting them repeat the outlandish and absurd. This binds them to him, makes them complicit in his future rule, and exhibits his would-be-powers for friends and foes alike. Presumably, Trump thinks doing so will allow him to rule with their loyalty and obedience and, thus, sets up the conditions for would-be-totalitarian-and-authoritarian politics, if he so wishes.
By invoking outrage over the lie, Levy ignores the fact that when others degrade and subordinate themselves willingly to a bully the proper response to their predicament is something akin to pity or concern. To do so would be to recognize in their servility the roots of our shared humanity. To put my polemical point tersely: a liberalism worth reviving is not, in the first instance, founded on truth (recall), but, primarily, on mutual recognition of shared humanity, even vulnerability which is the starting point for an alternative vision of society.
Levy closes his piece with the claim that "insisting on the difference between truth and lies is itself a part of the defense of freedom." This may well be so under totalitarianism--with him, I trust the moral compass of Orwell, Havel and Arendt. (Recall also my piece on Koyré written before Trump's victory.) But it is worth reminding ourselves, before we are swept away altogether, that we are not yet under totalitarian rule and that the defense of freedom requires a different rhetoric.
For, in a a liberal society, you have every right to utter and believe falsehoods except in the court of law (and in universities). (Some other falsehoods are also prohibited: e.g. slander, etc.) To say this is not to advocate public lying or to advocate deception. It is not to condone other people's lies (but it is to suggest that doubling down on fact-checking is a mistake). Rather, it is to recognize one of the essential differences between a totalitarian and free society: a free society does not require, does not even aspire to the rule of truth. If anything, if truth could rule then politics would not be necessary,+ which is precisely the dangerous fantasy peddled by some totalitarians.