Books

Charles Krauthammer’s Uncommon Greatness

Charles Krauthammer (Fox News/YouTube)
In his last book, The Point of It All, he makes a compelling conservative argument for liberal democracy.

In an interview given in 2013, the late columnist Charles Krauthammer revealed what inspired his career. Paraphrasing the writer Tom Stoppard, Krauthammer said writers spend their lives putting words together in the hope that sometimes, when they get the words in just the right order, they can give the world a nudge. “It’s what I exist to do, really.” Throughout his life, his arguments did more than nudge the world, and with the posthumous publication of his latest, last book, The Point of It All, they will to continue to do so.

Like Krauthammer’s best-seller Things That Matter (2013), The Point of It All consists of columns, long essays, and speeches spanning more than three decades. It also includes a new essay, “The Authoritarian Temptation,” functioning as a sort of capstone on a lifetime of reflection. It is his final warning to the future, and while characteristically concise, it embodies many of the themes that animated Krauthammer’s columns past.

The focus is the growing attraction — “still an attraction, not yet a commitment” — to strongman rule. What began as unfortunate but not unpredictable democratic reversals in Turkey, Venezuela, and elsewhere now threatens what were assumed to be secure democracies in the West: not just in Hungary and Poland but also in France, Britain, and the United States.

But the essay isn’t a lament. It’s a reminder of the unique treasure that is liberal democracy, and a call to arms to defend it. Known for advocating American military intervention to spread democracy abroad, he now finds it necessary to make his case to the home front. Bourgeois democracy is “the most free, the most humane, most decent political system ever invented by man,” he writes, “and the most banal.” Hence its problem.

Liberal democracy defeated totalitarianism, but it can’t replicate totalitarianism’s most defining and attractive aspect: a sense of purpose and belonging. Democracy is designed to be spiritually empty, designating means (elections, parliaments, markets) but not ends, which are left to the individual. This is liberal democracy’s chief virtue, and also its weakness: “Dying for it is far more ennobling than living it.” The only cure is a revival of civilizational self-confidence. Putin and Maduro have it, but undeservedly so. The West deserves it, but inexplicably prefers self-abnegation — not only denying the good Western civilization and America in particular have done but even apologizing for it.

But Krauthammer’s self-assurance never drifts into hubris. As important as the success of democracy is the survival of intellectual humility. This emphasis on humility — his “love of the unknowable,” as his son and editor of this book, Daniel, put it — informs his entire politics. Following in the tradition of his intellectual lodestars John Stuart Mill and Isaiah Berlin, he advocates an open and pluralist politics because no individual or group holds a monopoly on truth. Though conservative in temperament and ideology, he issues a defense of extremists: “An extremist is the last person you want to give power, but the first to whom you might want to give the floor.” Though a former psychiatrist, he warns that science’s problem is its habit of pretending it has all the answers.

And it is his humility that bridges the gap between the liberal thinkers who inspired him and his political conservatism. Mentioned more times than even Berlin is G. K. Chesterton, famed for his parable of the fence: While modern reformers come across a fence and, on not seeing its purpose, immediately remove it, the role of the conservative is to preserve it — at least until after sufficient deliberation. If the fence has survived this long, it likely serves some beneficial purpose.

Krauthammer applies this principle throughout his writings lightly, effortlessly, and always profoundly. About a plan to breed border collies for looks (possibly at the expense of their smarts), he writes, “The border collie is one of the few things that works. Must we ruin this too?” Of the Brexit debate, he says give the EU its due. Though not holding the technocrats of Brussels in high regard, he acknowledges that the EU has presided over maybe the longest period of peace in Europe’s history, and cautions conservatives against cheering its unraveling.

But for Krauthammer, the quintessential application of Chesterton’s principle concerns preserving the role the United States has filled as benign global hegemon since 1945. It’s a fence still left standing, despite a growing chorus on the left and the right not understanding why. They propose its removal: Withdraw our forces from our global engagements, cut off defense funds for our free-loading allies. But this “presupposes a fantasy world in which stability is self-sustaining without the United States. It is not. We would incur not respite but chaos.” We don’t know what horrors our fence is keeping at bay.

Krauthammer acknowledges that the U.S. could choose a life of comfort, like its European allies. But as we’re the world’s last indispensable nation, our only honest choice is greatness. And along with democracy and humility, veneration of greatness permeates every chapter of this book — when he writes of history’s Great Men and America’s great acts but also of daily displays as well. He celebrates not those who acquire ever more comforts but those who persist through discomfort with quiet dignity. In an age that extols self-love and self-aggrandizement, he champions self-sacrifice and what he calls “our stubborn little common human greatness.”

There was nothing common about his greatness. Paralyzed from a diving accident in his freshman year of medical school, he proceeded to continue his studies from his hospital bed and graduate with his class. Moving to Washington to work in politics after several years practicing psychiatry, he then became the most influential conservative writer of his time. And now, having moved from this life to whatever comes next (true to his humility, he didn’t presume to know), Krauthammer through his words continues to nudge the world in a better direction.

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