Making America Russian Again
There has been a great kerfuffle over Donald Trump’s use of a moral equivalency argument to defend Vladimir Putin against Bill O’Reilly’s description of the latter as “a killer,” to which the Tweeter-in-Chief replied, “There’s a lot of killers, you got a lot of killers. Why, you think our country’s so innocent?” Trump’s cult members, predictably, have doubled down on their master’s moronitude, flooding the virtual universe with every paranoid theory up to and including the assassination of Antonin Scalia by Michelle Obama’s (aka, former college football player Michael Robinson’s) hairdresser, in an effort to vindicate Trump’s insinuation that there are “a lot of killers” in the American government, too.
Trump’s response may be surprising coming from a Republican president, but aside from its source, its substance is quite familiar, as it is the same response O’Reilly would have gotten from Bill Ayers, Michael Moore, Oliver Stone, Sean Penn — or any number of Trump’s own lead propagandists this past year, such as Alex Jones or Roger Stone. In other words, kooks whose rational faculty, such as it ever was, has been sacrificed to an anti-republican, anti-liberty hysteria, whether of the communist or populist/nationalist variety, are always quick on the trigger with moral equivalency arguments of this kind.
This is no accident. Moral equivalency is the next-to-last recourse — violence is the last — of one who knows he is defending the indefensible. It is merely a political extension of the “safety in numbers” argument we all use to defend our personal vices or transgressions.
“Johnny, did you eat cookies before dinner?” “Yes, but Sally ate some too!”
“Downloading copyrighted movies is illegal.” “Well, sure, but everyone does it.”
Deep down, most of us know we cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility for our wrongdoing by observing that others have done wrong too; but at the same time, given that we have been caught, we hope that we may at least moderate our degree of culpability or guilt by hiding behind the idea that what we have done is unexceptional, and therefore (we falsely imagine) less serious.
Likewise, in the political arena, we may find ourselves supporting a person or party whose actions simply cannot be whitewashed or justified on their own terms. If I am not prepared to be brutally honest with my own ego and admit that my position has become less tenable, or at least less savory, in light of certain unavoidable facts about the person I am defending, then I have no other choice but to fall back on the same “safety in numbers” reasoning I used as a child: “Yes, but Sally ate some too!” (And if there is a man on Earth less inclined to be brutally honest with his own ego than Donald Trump, I’d hate to meet him.)
Thus if, when questioned about one’s praise of Vladimir Putin, one cannot look one’s interlocutor in the eye and say, “I approve of poisoning one’s political opponents to achieve one’s ends,” then what else is left, other than, “Yeah, but everyone poisons his political opponents”?
Moral equivalency, as is clear from my everyday examples above, is a common thread throughout the biography of the human psyche, as it is the perennial defense mechanism of poorly raised children, amounting, in effect, to saying “If everyone’s bad, then I’m not really so bad.” But among adults, this temptation is supposed to fade, as set character and a clear understanding of right and wrong compel the mind to square itself with facts, even unpleasant ones, in the name of maintaining one’s dignity and self-respect.
What happens, however, when such defense of the indefensible becomes not merely a child’s weakness, or a weak adult’s aberration, but rather a social and political norm, or even the “worldview” of the age? The answer may be seen by observing any and every progressive. For progressivism, as I have argued often and thoroughly, is the first major political philosophy that is no genuine philosophy at all, but merely an elaborate pseudo-theoretical rationalization for brutality and powerlust. Put simply, one can indeed concoct a semi-rational justification for progressive authoritarianism of all stripes; such arguments have been produced and adhered to by truly outstanding minds over the past century. Heidegger was an early apologist for Hitler, Sartre for Stalin and Mao, Graham Greene for Castro, and so on and on.
But while even a superior mind may become mired in a misguided sense of justice or a misapplied sense of logic, the real character test for such flawed reasoners is their refusal, when faced with the inhuman result of their errant position in practice, to deny or excuse it for the sake of their theoretician’s ego. George Orwell’s two most famous books are a clear enough example of the kind of intellectual integrity that looks unblinkingly at the cold truth of progressive authoritarian politics and declares the project irreconcilable with any concept of human decency. (Yes, I know Orwell remained a socialist, and like most leftists of the time sympathized with Trotsky; I didn’t say he was perfect, merely that he had integrity.) A man who cannot reassess this way, or is simply unwilling, for dishonest reasons, to relinquish his preferred belief in light of hard facts, will turn, by necessity, to the old stand-by: “Yes, but Sally ate some too!” “Yes, but everyone is guilty.”
This ploy, which results more from psychological immaturity and a lack of settled character (i.e., virtue) than from any sophisticated reasoning process, is perhaps the deepest source of the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of most progressives. To defend tyranny against liberty inevitably lands one in the predicament of having to explain the injustices and brutalities of the tyrants one is defending. Since forced famines, summary executions, draconian suppression of speech and association, and the rest of the day-to-day workings of authoritarianism, cannot be defended on their own terms without reducing the speaker to sounding as cold-blooded as a tyrant himself (i.e., revealing his true progressive soul, which is always disagreeable in polite company), the only viable alternative is to deflect the question by turning it back on the questioner. Hence we get the standard moral equivalency rationalizations of progressives:
“The Bolsheviks are killing capitalists and their families.” “But capitalists steal profits from the workers.”
“The man you are idolizing is a vicious dictator.” “But hasn’t America supported vicious dictators in Latin America?”
“American progressivism violates the principles of liberty defined by the nation’s founders.” “But Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.”
You get the idea. Simply refuse to answer any direct questions about the evil you are defending by asserting that the alternatives to, or opponents of, that evil are guilty of something too.
But if defending evil is actually your intention, and not merely a corner into which you have painted yourself, then moral equivalency arguments become more than the conveniences of a morally weak mind. They become permanent psychological and rhetorical necessities. In this case — that is, to make the defense of absurdity and inhumanity truly grand — we need a theory. Thus, the good old fashioned “safety in numbers” human weakness of moral equivalency evolves into the academically certified insanity of moral relativism.
To see the connection between fully developed moral relativism and its pupa stage, moral equivalency, consider Allan Bloom’s fun example of the knee-jerk relativism found regularly among university students, from the Introduction of The Closing of the American Mind:
The students, of course, cannot defend their opinion [that truth is relative]. It is something with which they have been indoctrinated. The best they can do is point out all the opinions and cultures there are and have been. What right, they ask, do I or anyone else have to say one is better than the others? If I pose the routine questions designed to confute them and make them think, such as, “If you had been a British administrator in India, would you have let the natives under your governance burn the widow at the funeral of a man who had died?,” they either remain silent or reply that the British should never have been there in the first place. (p. 26)
That is, when the full argument for moral relativism is not available, as in the case of students who have been propagandized with relativism without learning the (self-contradictory) arguments behind it, the relativist instinctively resorts to the next-best thing, his natural position, moral equivalency: avoid the challenge to one’s position by claiming that everyone’s hands are dirty. “Yes, but Sally ate some too!”
If you consider all of the preceding carefully, you will notice that although we speak of people using moral equivalency arguments to defend Vladimir Putin, Fidel Castro, or whomever, in fact the person who resorts to this pathetic argument is not primarily defending the tyrant at all. The primary beneficiary of such arguments is the speaker himself, who is attempting to excuse his defense of the indefensible by hiding the ugly facts that sully his position within a forest of “equivalent” ugly facts. In the case of children, we understand perfectly why they fall into this weak position: they are afraid of facing punishment for eating cookies before dinner. Fear, plain and simple. But with adults, who must be presumed to have taken their position for some reason, our response to the moral equivalency instinct ought to be, “Why are you so adamant in clinging to a position that leaves you looking so morally compromised and weak?”
Why has Donald Trump made the defense of Vladimir Putin such a prevalent and consistent element of his rhetoric? Trump has shown no reticence to smear and belittle anyone and everyone who crosses his path, if that person is perceived as being in any way unsupportive of his aims. And that includes many people he has praised and called friends in the past. (Clinton, Schumer, Cruz, Romney, et al.) So why is Putin different? Why, when even a most supportive and friendly interviewer — second in the Orange-nosing Olympics only to Sean Hannity — tosses him a complete softball question clearly designed to give him a chance to look tough on Putin the thug, does he instead fall back on the amoral childishness of “Why, you think our country’s so innocent?”
I can imagine only two possibilities. Perhaps, as some suspect, he is actually in the tank for Putin for some concrete reason — financial advantage, blackmail photos, Manchurian candidacy, what have you. Or, as I think is more likely, he is genuinely in awe of Putin, who is in reality all the things Donald Trump pretends to be but manifestly isn’t: a strongman, an alpha male, a big picture manipulator with nerves of steel, and a man relentlessly following through on concrete plans for making his country “great” again.
In other words, I suspect that Trump, who deep down knows he is strictly a reality TV strongman, all bluff, full of hot air, and utterly at the mercy of advisors (establishment and “alt-right”) to protect him from appearing as foolish and incompetent as he really is, looks at Putin — the former KGB officer and shirtless macho man who has ruthlessly rigged his nation’s nascent democratic system to make himself dictator for life, who cold-bloodedly sanctions the poisoning or arrest of opponents who get too vocal, who threatens or invades neighboring countries with impunity, and who controls the second biggest nuclear arsenal on the planet — and, to put it bluntly, wets his pants.
Obama, caught on a hot mike, made infamous promises to Putin near the end of his first term, and did absolutely nothing to thwart or curtail Russia’s increasingly threatening behavior toward America’s allies among former Soviet slave states. Now Trump, apparently afraid of offending a man whom he and everyone else beyond the Trump cult can see would mop the floor with The Donald in any negotiation, confrontation, or stand-off, defends Putin exactly like a small pond bully in the face of a big pond bully, scared to death of being exposed by his superior, and therefore desperate never to offend.
This will become a problem, potentially a very serious one. A U.S. President who is constitutionally unfit and unwilling to offend or disturb the peace of a Russian dictator puts his own nation, and the rest of the civilized world, at great risk. You don’t need to look any further than the past eight years for evidence of the danger. But as Putin gets older, the likelihood of his ramping up to the next stage of his plans grows. How would President Trump respond to further European invasions, for example? Are the brains behind this puppet-president going to have the skill and courage to prod him into decisive action? Will they themselves be the kind of people who are capable of the type of steady, firm pushback that would be necessary to stifle the ambitions of an aggressive Russia?
We had better hope so, if the president himself is going to evade even the simplest interview question about Putin’s thuggery with childish moral equivalency arguments.