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Hallucinators and Grifters
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Hallucinators and Grifters

Donald Trump is not the cure for what ails us.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters on March 4, 2023, in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Hey,

Last Friday, while I was writing this “news”letter, Stephen Miller—one of Donald Trump’s court intellectuals—asked me what my problem with Donald Trump’s speech was.

I think it’s a sign of personal growth—not to mention my commitment to you, dear readers—that I didn’t leap to take the bait. Getting into debates on Twitter with MAGA world reaches the point of diminishing returns pretty quickly. This question in particular is not well-suited for Twitter, for reasons I’ll get to shortly.

But I do think it’s a question worth answering because there are a lot of people who, for reasons I cannot completely fathom at this point, take Trump seriously as a geostrategic thinker. Also, because I have a crazy schedule today, I have no idea what’s happening in the news and no time to get up to speed before I gotta file this thing. But it’s very unlikely that anything has happened today that would make Trump’s comments less absurd. So let me take a whack.

First, I must admit that I suspect Miller is particularly aggrieved because he probably wrote the words that came out of Trump’s mouth.

If you read Suicide of the West, you might reasonably conclude that I agree with a slice of the snippet Miller asked about. Not the sweaty stuff about the “globalist class” or the economically illiterate junk about being “totally dependent on China and other foreign countries that basically hate us,” of course. But yeah, reading exceedingly generously, I do think domestic cultural problems—family breakdown, decline of religion, anti-Americanism, etc.—are a greater threat to the future of the country and Western civilization than the war in (and on) Ukraine.

But here’s the (first) problem. Even with that generous reading, this excerpt and the whole speech is garbage because it consists purely of misdirection, question-begging, and fear-mongering.

Flight 93 redux.

Let’s start with the fear-mongering. You may recall that in 2016, Trump benefited enormously from an intellectually dishonest screed by Michael Anton called “The Flight 93 Election.” The premise was that electing Trump would be risky, but since Hillary Clinton would permanently destroy America, it was worth rolling the dice on him despite whatever misgivings you might have. It was paranoid nonsense at the time, but it worked on a lot of conservatives.

Team Trump needs another “Flight 93” argument to get people to overlook all of the obvious reasons he should never be anywhere near the White House again. They’re still working through some options, but the leading contender right now is global thermonuclear war.  This is the first paragraph of the speech:

“We have never been closer to World War III than we are today under Joe Biden. A global conflict between nuclear-armed powers would mean death and destruction on a scale unmatched in human history. It would be nuclear Armageddon. Nothing is more important than avoiding that nightmare. We will avoid it, but we need new leadership.”

And this is the last paragraph: 

“These globalists want to squander all of America’s strength, blood and treasure, chasing monsters and phantoms overseas while keeping us distracted from the havoc they’re creating here at home. These forces are doing more damage to America than Russia and China could ever have dreamed. Evicting this sick and corrupt establishment is the monumental task for the next president, and I’m the only one who can do it. I’m the only one who can get the job done.”

And more plainly, here’s what Trump recently said at a rally:

“Standing before you today, I am the only candidate who can make this promise: I will prevent World War III. Because I really believe you’re going to have World War III.”

With stakes like that, who cares about a few criminal indictments for trying to steal an election or keep a porn star quiet?

So, before we get to the “substance” of Trump’s remarks, you should approach the text with the understanding that he thinks you’re all suckers, easily scared into thinking Donald Trump alone can stop nuclear war. (Stop laughing.)

Okay, let’s turn to the wilted leaf of Trump’s delicately arranged word salad that Miller thinks is so “spot-on accurate.”

Western civ first?

Trump suggests that Russia is not “the greatest threat” to Western civilization today.

I agree! But so what?

Saying something is “not the greatest threat” to Western civilization is not a rebuttal of the more modest claim that Russia is a threat to Western civilization.

China is not the greatest threat to Western civilization either. Indeed, Trump says as much, but that’s not an argument for doing nothing vis a vis China, is it?

Think of it this way: Cholera is not the greatest threat to public health today, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything to prevent cholera outbreaks. Or, to put it in terms that Miller can more easily grasp, illegal immigrants overstaying their visas aren’t as big a problem as illegal immigrants swarming the southern border. But you can be sure that Miller is in favor of doing something about over-stayers, too. 

But when it comes to Putin’s invasion, Trump’s trying to say that not being the No. 1 threat is synonymous with not being a threat at all.

The actual question isn’t whether Putin’s invasion is the greatest threat to Western civilization, but whether it’s a threat to American interests. Is helping Ukraine thwart a lawless and barbaric invasion good for America? Is it good to have Russia degrade its military? Is it worth our time to help protect the idea that wars of imperial aggression have no place in Europe or the world? Is it in our interest to help NATO recognize its role as a guarantor of peace and stability? Is it worth shoring up the integrity—both literally and politically—of Europe, a much bigger and more important trading partner than China? Is it worth signaling to China that wanton aggression is more difficult and costly than they might think?

The answer to these questions for Biden and most Republicans is yes. But reasonably, that does not extend to sending American troops, or even to sending some weapons systems.

Even the use of the phrase “Western civilization” instead of “our interests” or “national security” is rhetorical sleight of hand. Is Trump for America First or Western civilization First? Because Western civilization can be nibbled away at the margins for a very long time without America herself being meaningfully imperiled.

Patriotism as hatred.

And then there’s the false choice Trump presents: You can care about Ukraine or you can care about the real threat, those godless globalist deep staters who hate you.

Whenever I hear a politician say, in effect, “Don’t look at the wanton slaughter and rape being dealt by our geopolitical foe, look instead at fellow Americans as the real existential enemy,” I don’t see a lot of patriotism. I do see nationalism, of a sort. “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first,” Charles de Gaulle said, “nationalism is when hate for people other than your own comes first.”

One of the things I’ve detested about Trump’s (and Miller’s) approach to politics from the beginning is the way he wants to be a wartime leader, but in a war against domestic enemies. A lot of people who hear Trump’s blather about “America First” don’t ever catch on that he’s actually just talking about some Americans first (with him at the top of the list). The “only important thing,” Trump said at a rally in the spring of 2016, “is the unification of the people—because the other people don’t mean anything.” Those “other people” are Americans, too. After all, Trump promised his fans to be “your retribution” at CPAC a couple weeks ago. Retribution against whom? Fellow U.S. citizens.

Whatever good Trump could conceivably do in the fight to save Western civilization is outweighed tenfold by the damage he would do to the social fabric, the Constitution, and the international order.

The wrong tool for the job.

And that brings us to the question-begging.

Trump’s whole approach to politics works from an unargued assumption that if you care about America, Trump is the only candidate for you. People sincerely think that because he talks about putting America first, he actually cares about putting America first. They also think he knows how to do that and that his idea of what America is or should be is remotely accurate. All of that is wrong.

 Trump has a thumbless grasp of nearly everything that makes America special. He says he loves the Constitution, but he recently called for suspending it to have himself reinstalled as president. He says he holds the Bible dear, but when asked for his favorite verse, he coughed up “an eye for an eye.” I don’t like lecturing Christians about their faith, but I’m pretty sure this didn’t make Jesus’ top 10.

You can agree entirely with Trump that our biggest problems are “the abolition of our national borders,” “the failure to police our own cities,” “the destruction of the rule of law,” and the “the collapse of the nuclear family.” You can nod along when he decries the “Marxists who would have us become a godless nation, worshiping at the altar of race and gender and environment” and “the globalist class that has made us totally dependent on China and other foreign countries that basically hate us.”

But why on earth would you think Trump is the best guy to deal with any of that? Heck, why would you think he actually believes any of this stuff? The thrice-married serial adulterer who didn’t want to name his son “Don Jr.” because he might turn out to be a “loser”? That’s the guy who really cares about the nuclear family? Really?

You think Trump cares about the rule of law? The guy who pardoned criminal friends because they were accomplices? The guy who encouraged a lawless siege of the Capitol and who wants to pardon the mob? The guy who tried to bully Mike Pence into stealing the election? He doesn’t care about the rule of law. He is the foremost practitioner of the banana republic caudillo’s slogan: “For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.”

I honestly have no idea if Miller knows what he is doing or if he actually believes what he’s doing. What I mean is, it’s possible he thinks Trump is right about the problems he describes and that he’s the best means of solving those problems. But it’s also possible that Miller understands how stupid it is to pretend that Trump is a serious steward of “Western civilization” and he’s just cynically riding Trump because he has no better options.

That’s basically how I view prominent people still supporting Trump against the field at this point. If you’re sincere, you’re hallucinatory. If you’re not sincere, you’re by definition lying and probably in on the grift.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.