“Well, I preach the Church without Christ,” says a vivid Flannery O’Connor character named Hazel Motes. “I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.”
At the heart of Donald Trump’s public rhetoric is a similar emptiness. He is a president who preaches America without exceptionalism. He is the leader of the free world who seldom mentions freedom. He belongs to a political faith in which America’s political miracle is only for us, and dissidents and democratic activists are on their own, and those who are oppressed stay that way.
Trump’s inaugural address was intended to signal the end of exceptionalism, at least in its international expression. In the speech, the American “way of life” is depicted as one among many – a homegrown product that is not for export. Two academics (perhaps with too much time on their hands) have calculated the frequency with which Trump uses “freedom” and “liberty” in speeches. Both words appear far less often than in other recent presidencies. Neither word breaks into the top 1,000 he uses.
Trump’s rhetorical rejection of internationalism is an aberration from America’s bipartisan, post-World War II foreign policy consensus. It is also a culmination of recent trends.
During the Barack Obama years, America retreated from internationalism in practice. At first, this may have been a reaction against George W. Bush’s foreign policy. But Obama’s tendency became a habit, and the habit hardened into a conviction. He put consistent emphasis on the risks of action and the limits of American power. In the revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, following the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, as Russian influence returned to the Middle East, America inaction was taken as accommodation. “The fear of making things worse has paralyzed the United States from trying to make things better,” said Russian dissident Garry Kasparov in recent congressional testimony.
This geostrategic retreat is consistent with a broader political trend. Summarizing recent survey data, researchers Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk conclude: “Citizens in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders. Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives.”
This is a sobering development – the deconsolidation of support for liberal democracy itself. Both America and Europe are seeing the rise of leaders who have chosen to ride this trend rather than buck it. Trump’s version of strongman democracy and his abandonment of the language of liberal democracy are only imaginable in this environment.
This shift has outward-facing consequences. Dissidents and democratic activists – often driven by a stubborn, defiant passion – are not going to give up because America loses its ideological nerve. But regimes tempted to crack down on them have greater confidence in impunity. America is now less likely to criticize their “way of life,” even when these regimes evangelize with the gallows.
This shift also has inward-facing consequences. A nation that ceases to speak for human rights may become less confident in civil rights. This type of relativism – this neutrality between freedom and authoritarianism – is easily imported across the border.
But we are not there yet. And the Trump administration itself is divided on these matters. Stephen Bannon certainly has the president’s ear and control of the speechwriting shop – which is strategic high ground. His ethno-nationalists are anxious to get a running start on the road that would take America toward dishonor and failure. But the Defense and State Departments are headed by committed internationalists who understand that the growth of freedom and the spread of prosperity are essential to long-term global stability and American security.
The tools of internationalism – a strong military, strong alliances, strong international institutions, strong support for global development and democracy promotion – have a considerable cost. “Such investment,” said Kasparov, “is far more moral and far cheaper than the cycle of terror, war, refugees and military intervention that results when America leaves a vacuum of power.”
In assuming this calling of leadership, it is not ethnicity that grips the American imagination and justifies sacrifice; it is the animating ideals of the country. And it is a national advantage that our deepest beliefs are in accord with the durable hopes of humanity.
We will not find security, only darkness, by dousing America’s sacred fire.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.