Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
Some of you told me they other day you’d prefer me to write more about Europe and less about Trump. Since I’ve got thousands of words of notes on my computer about Europe, I’ll try to oblige, although of course it’s impossible to write about the former without noting the latter’s effect upon it.
Our podcast guest the other day was Jamie Kirchick, the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age. As it happens, I’d just published a review of his book in National Review. The subject of his book is very similar to the one I’m writing, so unsurprisingly, I found it thought-provoking; in fact, I found it essay-provoking; I ended up writing a chapter-length response to it. Of course, National Review couldn’t run a 5,000-word review. They ran what they thought were the best 1,800 words. (Mike Potemra, the book section editor, did a great job of choosing them.)
But as a result, some of the points I made in the review had to stand as assertions, rather than full arguments. Since one of our members asked about it, I decided to publish the original review. You can read the whole thing here:
Journalist James Kirchick’s first book is about Europe, not America, but throughout the reader will sense that it rests upon unvoiced axioms about America and its role in the world. These are axioms upon which no argument can rest confidently in the age of Donald Trump. As a consequence, although the book contains no obvious anachronisms, it feels as if it was written in another era, for a reader who no longer exists.
Kirchick was based in Prague and Berlin for much of the past decade, sending dispatches back to America about Europe and the former Soviet Union. During most of those years I did the same thing from Istanbul and Paris. Every writer imagines his readers; Kirchick’s imaginary readers seem to be much like mine. Call them Postwar Americans. Americans who feel it important to take a lively interest in the rest of the world, ones who are familiar, roughly, with the history of the First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War, ones who instinctively feel the lessons of these catastrophes. Americans who elected such presidents as Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush; who understood that the relative global order in which Americans flourished for some seventy years did not emerge in sua sponte but was created, deliberately, by great postwar statesmen and maintained by American power, hard and soft.
The United States was at the center of a system designed to promote peaceful trade among reasonably decent and democratic people, and for the most part, it did. Those readers knew this system to be imperfect, but better than the alternatives. And they believed – wrongly, as it happened – that their country was sufficiently exceptional that such things as happened in Europe could not happen to them.
To the extent spectral qualities may be assigned to Donald Trump, there is a specter haunting this book …
I can only sympathize with Kirchick. I assume he wrote much of it well before Trump’s nomination, no less his election. I’m in the same boat. None of my theories about Europe, America, history, politics, or the world quite make sense in light of Trump; it seems I predicated them all on a massive initial error: the idea that America was too exceptional to fall victim to Europe’s pathologies. What does it mean that this is untrue?
I don’t know, and I’m no closer to knowing having read Kirchick’s book. But that’s not a fair criticism of it; it doesn’t purport to answer that question, and it doesn’t obviate his observations about the malignity of these trends in Europe. Still, the suppressed premise of the book is that these are exclusively European pathologies, and that suppressed premise is wrong. I sensed that a frantic, last-minute round of revisions and skillful editing brought the book largely up-to-date, but only superficially. The thing has a what-universe-are-you-living-in-Jamie quality.
Take the chapter about Germany. Much of it is devoted to the fallout of the Snowden revelations and the fit Germans pitched upon learning that Americans spy on them. Kirchick tells them to grow up: Everyone spies. What’s more, Germany needs to be spied upon, he argues, for Russia “continues to penetrate German politics, industry, media, intelligence, and armed forces.” Some German politicians, he notes, are particularly dodgy; Gerhard Schröder, for example, in 2004 declared Vladimir Putin “a flawless democrat,” and backed a loan guarantee for the Kremlin-backed gas pipeline Nord Stream. He subsequently took a post as chairman of the pipeline’s shareholders’ committee. That’s dodgy indeed. The “most concerning” aspect of the Nord Stream affair, Kirchick concludes, is that “Nord Stream puts the perceived national interest of Germany before solidarity with its democratic NATO and EU allies to the east by allowing Russia to restrict gas supplies to Eastern Europe while causing no pain to Western Europe.”
I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. Kirchick wrote that chapter for the reading audience I always thought I knew, people who didn’t need to be told why it’s a problem, big league, if Germany sells out its neighbors to the Russians, Rapallo-style. He continues in that vein: “When it comes to presenting a united front against Russian aggression and subversion, Germany’s Social Democrats are one of Europe’s weakest links.” He earnestly catalogues their flaws: “Signing a deal with an extortionist Russian energy concern and then taking a job on its board, lauding Vladimir Putin as a ‘flawless democrat,’ garlanding those who facilitate the exposure of America’s national security secrets, attacking NATO as a bunch of ‘warmongers’—such is the recent foreign policy record of German Social Democracy.” He assumes his readers won’t need to be told why this record is disturbing. But as we know now, they will. Germans, he continues, have taken to the streets to protest TTIP, their minds addled by hysteria, economic illiteracy, and recrudescent nationalism, so the NSA, he concludes, would be remiss not to spy on them. (We can expect to hear variants on this argument again and again in the coming days, thanks to the latest Putinleaks.)
I do understand: the book was due, the advance was paid, and you can’t call your publisher to say, “It seems we put Donald Trump in the Oval Office, and nothing I ever thought about anything makes any sense anymore. Let’s just throw this whole book out.” I admire Kirchick’s professionalism in plowing on as if the whole thing never happened. The show must go on.
And on it goes. He offers an entirely accurate account of the mendacity and bad faith of the charlatans who broke the United Kingdom, particularly Nigel Farage. “Farage’s sympathy for the Kremlin view of the world is long-standing,” he notes, “and comes naturally to a ‘Little Englander’ who seeks a diminished place for his country in global affairs.” (Again, the suppressed argument seems to be that Americans would never make the mistake of seeking a diminished place for their country in global affairs.) “It is incredible to behold Great Britain, which once occupied more than 20 percent of the earth’s landmass, moving ever closer to the brink of its own disintegration.” And if you thought that was incredible, reader, just you wait. …
I’d argue that Kirchick’s treatment of the EU is relatively weaker because he too has succumbed to exaggeration about the effects of the refugee crisis. Not everything you hear about the ill-effects of this influx is Russian propaganda, to be sure; it is a crisis. But a lot of what you hear is, in fact, for real, Russian propaganda. Look at the photo: This isn’t reds-under-the-beds paranoia, that is the Russian propaganda channel; and unsurprisingly, neither the photo nor the caption has anything to do with what the article purports. This is one reason I feel entitled to be as strident as I am about Trump even though I live in Europe: I can see for myself, right in front of my eyes, when Trump lies about Europe, or gets his information straight from Putinist outlets, and I can see the effect it has on our allies, on common decency, when he says these things. I too see the effects of Trump firsthand — just like you do, in other words — and they aren’t good. During the Cold War, the United States countered Soviet propaganda in Europe through such outlets as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – Kirchick’s former employer. Breitbart now plans to expand into France and Germany with new bureaus to cultivate and promote Europe’s populist-nationalist, pro-Putin parties. Steve Bannon is now on the National Security Council; his name is almost synonymous with Breitbart, a news organization that plans actively to work against American interests in Europe. It is almost too strange to believe that the United States now seeks to amplify Russian propaganda rather than counter it.
One imagines that Kirchick wrote his denunciation of Europe’s short-sighted and protectionist trade policies, too, in that universe where American trade policy was far-sighted. “EU trade policies,” he writes, “protecting heavily subsidized domestic agricultural interests at the expense of third-world farmers hoping to export their goods to the common market—similarly increase migratory waves to Europe by pricing out producers from underdeveloped economies, thereby exacerbating poverty and economic torpor.” Quite! How could these foolish Europeans indulge this self-defeating impulse to protectionism? How fortunate are we Americans that we were born and weaned on The Weath of Nations and see right through these species of folly.
Except: We don’t.
I remember writing this kind of guide to the Old World, in the voice of an American who could observe Europe’s suicidal impulses with rueful detachment, grateful her country was not similarly afflicted, secure in the belief it never would be. “As was once said about the conquest of its erstwhile empire,” Kirchick writes of Europe, “Britain may bring about the collapse of Europe in a fit of absence of mind.” Though he does not say it, I immediately thought, “And America might bring about the collapse of the postwar order in a like moment of absent-mindedness.”
Anyway. Despite my reservations about some of his arguments, I do recommend the book, though I also recommend carefully checking the references, particularly in the chapter on France. I especially recommend his chapter on Hungary. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, he writes, has presided over a campaign to obscure “both the specifically anti-Jewish nature of the Holocaust and the Hungarian state’s active collaboration in mass murder,” one that features “government-sponsored historical institutes, publicly funded documentaries, revisions to school curricula, bestowal of state honors to extreme right-wing figures, and erections of public monuments and museum exhibitions,” all functioning to obscure Jewish victimhood. Jews do tend to be the canary in the coalmine. Yesterday, Orban said that “ethnic homogeneity” was key in fostering economic success, and “too much mixing causes trouble.” You cannot both admire these sentiments and complain that the left calls you a racist. (Or you can, but it makes no sense.)
As the historian Lewis Namier observed, there is a morphology of politics; certain forms occur and re-occur. Historical revisionism appears to be intrinsic to the form that Kirchick terms Orbánism. But you could also call it Putinism or Erdoğanism. Contemporary political scientists describe it as illiberal democracy, partial democracy, low intensity democracy, empty democracy, and hybrid democracy. Namier called it plebiscitary Caesarism,
with its direct appeal to the masses: demagogical slogans ; disregard of legality in spite of a professed guardianship of law and order; contempt of political parties and the parliamentary system, of the educated classes and their values; blandishments and vague, contradictory promises for all and sundry; militarism; gigantic, blatant displays and shady corruption. Panem et circenses once more and at the end of the road, disaster.
The cultivation of nostalgia for an authoritarian past, Kirchick writes, and he is right to do so, tends to presage an authoritarian future: Orbán’s government “has rewritten the constitution, centralized power in the executive, weakened checks and balances, empowered an oligarchic class, dispensed state awards and ceded cultural policy to extreme right-wing figures, rendered parliament a rubber stamp, overhauled public media institutions into partisan outlets, harassed civil society, and reoriented Hungary’s traditionally Atlanticist and pro-European foreign policy toward Russia and other authoritarian regimes.”
It’s easier to do this in countries with a shorter (or no) tradition of liberal democracy, to be sure; it isn’t so easy to do in America. But it is the goal of such personalities to do it. I leave it to you to read the book and decide whether it’s too familiar for comfort. I think it is.