August 31, 2023
See David French, “The Articulate Ignorance of Vivek Ramaswamy,” New York Times, August 31, 2023, (3:00 p.m. ET),
I am tired and don’t really want to write at 9:20 p.m., when it is time to go to sleep.
Yet a deep sense of foreboding impels me to write, or at least to jot down a few notes on what is troubling me tonight.
The Republican debate on Wednesday night brought home a few deeply-troubling realities.
Swarmy Vivek Ramaswamy, parroting Donald Trump, argued we should cut our aid to Ukraine, and devote our resources to defending our southern border from the “invasion” of aliens and asylum seekers who are entering the U.S.
Nikki Haley called him out for wanting to hand Ukraine to Putin, and surrender Taiwan to China. “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” she declared as she took down the the swarmy Ramaswamy and showed the world there is no substance beneath the glib millionaire’s patter.
Thirty years ago a candidate like Ramaswamy would never have made it onto the debate stage.
Behind Haley’s putdown lies another even more troubling truth. The Republican Party and its Trump supporters have no memory of history, no understanding of government or international affairs, and are not shocked by what Ramaswamy said about supporting Ukraine. Or who, like many of Trump’s supporters in leadership positions, have sacrificed honor and truth in the service of personal political ambition.
30-40% of the electorate or more are ignorant or cynical or simply brainwashed by a cult leader and support such irresponsible positions as those Ramaswamy and Trump have put forth on support for Ukraine.
Let us recall. Donald Trump has never criticized Vladimir Putin. Not once. He is, in fact, Putin’s Trojan Horse, and Russia’s best hope for an early victory in the Ukraine war.
The problem with an ignorant electorate is that political debates become circus shouting matches, where serious consideration of fateful issues yields to spectacle.
As Timothy Snyder pointed out in Chapter 10 of his classic primer On Tyrany (2017), once you have destroyed the concept of truth, as Trump has done with his cult followers, all that is left is spectacle, where “the biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”
Expertise is no longer valued. Evil clowns like Mary Taylor Green get media coverage. Repeated liars are invited back as guests on TV talk shows and news programs.
What we are left with, as we were Wednesday night, is a lot of bickering and grandstanding at the third-grade level. Those few who made rational arguments were immediately dismissed by journalists based on their pre-debate poll numbers as having little or no chance of winning the nomination.
It is incredibly hard to conduct a rational debate before a highly-agitated and ignorant crowd, even if that crowd is the entire Republican Party, or even the entire country.
What is needed are little history and civic lessons accompanying every statement of a position. What is international law? What is the United Nations Charter? Why is its prohibition of the use of force across international frontiers so important? What were the lessons of World War II? Why are international human rights important? What did we learn from Hitler and the Nazis about human rights?
The sad truth is that the Democrats have their work cut out for them in trying to explain history, World War II, and international relations to an ignorant electorate.
But they absolutely must try, every time they take a position.
In short, they have to lead.
I know that is asking a lot from the Democrats, or any politician, in 2023.
Haley might just as well have said, to the entire country, “You have no foreign policy knowledge or memory, and it shows.”
Unfortunately this foreign-policy ignorance could have disastrous consequences for the whole world.
Without foreign policy experts who are respected by the population, without the concepts of honor and truth in many cases, anything can happen in the 2024 elections.
Even if Joe Biden wins the election, we will be left with the same quality of foreign policy leadership he has demonstrated since taking office.
That sounds depressing, until you stop and consider what a Trump or Trumpist alternative would look like, and what its consequences would be for the world, and for each one of us.
The Trenchant Observer