Impromptus

Curses of Venezuela, &c.

Caracas, Venezuela, during a blackout, July 22, 2019 (Manaure Quintero / Reuters)
Rand Paul vs. Elliott Abrams; Donald Trump and Xi Jinping; an Israeli fighter pilot; and more

Rand Paul and Elliott Abrams are very different people. The former, as you know, is a Republican senator from Kentucky. The latter is a longtime diplomat and foreign-affairs analyst who now has two portfolios in the State Department: Venezuela and Iran.

As regular readers may know, I have admired Abrams since he was a youngster in the Reagan-Shultz State Department.

In a recent Senate hearing, Paul and Abrams clashed on the subject of Venezuela. “Clashed” may not be the right word; Paul harangued him for about five minutes, and Elliott got in a few words — all of them very good.

To see this exchange, go here.

“Without a doubt,” said Paul, reading from a statement, “Venezuela is a socialist nightmare. It’s indeed a vivid indictment of the economic system of socialism.” The senator went on to say, “It has largely been ignored that the possible replacement for Maduro, Guaidó, is also a socialist. His political party is recognized by the Socialist International.”

Nicolás Maduro, as you know, is the presidential dictator of Venezuela, and Juan Guaidó is the leader of the democratic opposition.

Said Paul to Abrams, “What do you say as to replacing one socialist with another in Venezuela?”

I’m not sure how I would have answered that question. I’m afraid I would have sputtered, and then been caustic. Stalin was one socialist, sure; and Norman Thomas was another. Peas in a pod, right?

Abrams answered perfectly. “I don’t think the main problem in Venezuela is that one party or another is a member of the Socialist International, which a lot of partners of ours in Europe are and have been.” The problem is that the Maduro regime “is a vicious, brutal, murderous dictatorship.”

Paul, not liking that answer at all, interjected, “I guess that response sort of somehow alleviates the stigma of socialism from being a problem, you know — that socialism isn’t the problem there.”

The senator lectured Abrams on the link between socialism and tyranny — a subject that Abrams knows at least as well as he, and I would wager better.

Winding down, Paul said, “We should not so casually dismiss socialism as being the problem in Venezuela.”

With remarkable patience, Abrams said he was not dismissing socialism, casually or otherwise. “I think it is very bad economic policy.” But he wanted to point out a few elementary facts of life.

Britain has had socialist governments, France has had socialist governments, West Germany had socialist governments — and “they were allies of ours throughout the Cold War.” Socialism was not a problem, as long as those governments were democratic.

“Whether they pursue a terrible economic policy is essentially theirs to decide, because it’s their country,” said Abrams. “The problem with Venezuela is that it has a murderous, corrupt regime that is having an impact, not only inside, but on all the neighbors.”

After watching this exchange, I got to thinking — about Attlee and Wilson in Britain; Mitterrand in France; Schmidt in West Germany; Craxi in Italy.

I thought about Sidney Hook, the great American anti-communist, who was a socialist. And all those labor-union leaders, who were invaluable anti-communists, socialist though they may have been.

How about Canada’s current government? Do you consider it socialist? Yet Canada, somehow, is not a murderous dictatorship.

“There goes Nordlinger,” my critics will say, “defending socialism.” Actually, I am a free-marketeer (unlike my usual critics on the right). But what is important is whether you are willing to work within a liberal-democratic frame, whatever your economic views are.

You know?

Conservatives like to say, “Venezuela, socialist: ha!” Yes, the chavistas are socialists. But, equally important, if not more so, they are populists. And conservatives don’t like to say this, because they are enamored of populism.

Hugo Chávez was a master populist — just about the most perfect populist who ever came down the pike. A stoker of grievances. A lampooner of elites. A champion of “The People” against the banks, the foreigners, and every other stage villain.

Believe only me. Everyone else is lying. Only I can save you. I alone can fix it.

Two years ago, I interviewed Antonio Ledezma, the former mayor of Caracas, a former political prisoner, now in exile. I asked him whether he ever imagined that Venezuela could slide into tyranny and poverty — indeed, into starvation.

“No, honestly,” he said. “I thought we would have more and better democracy, not go back to a time that seemed to be gone forever: a time when we had strongmen as leaders, when people would blindly follow the man on the horse, a false messiah who gave populist speeches, claiming to be predestined. Chávez was really good at that.”

Oh, yes. So is AMLO in Mexico and many another, and not just in Latin America.

For my piece on Ledezma, go here. Also, I discussed these same issues with Enrique Krauze, the Mexican historian, earlier this year. For my two-part series, go here and here.

These issues will never go away, for they are ever human.

• Lucien Smith is the chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party. He is also an old friend of mine: a high-flying lawyer and politico. I believe I met him in New York, when he was working at a major firm here. He had studied at Harvard, in Paris, and at UVA Law School.

I want to comment on a speech he has just given: here, on YouTube. The first half is standard state-party–chairman stuff: Yay, us; boo, them. The second half, however, says essentially the following:

Russia and China are malign powers that seek to divide us in various ways. Either Trump or Biden will win in November. Either way, there will be cries of “hoax” and all the rest of it. It is important to stay united as a people, as Americans: defending our way of life. Don’t let malicious and malignant actors sow strife among us.

That’s my kind of state-party chairman.

• Bill Buckley liked to tell the story about a legislator in the Pendergast machine (Kansas City). The legislator is on the floor, laying into a proposed bill: saying it will mean wrack and ruin. While he is in mid-diatribe, a messenger slips him a note: “The Boss has changed his mind.”

The legislator gulps and then says, “All those arguments you have heard from me? That’s what the other side says. Now I will tell you why they’re wrong.”

For three years and change, President Trump spoke warmly to, and about, Xi Jinping, the boss of Communist China. It was really nauseating.

“You know, when I’m with him, because he’s great, when I’m with him, he’s a great guy.”

“I think I like him a lot. I think he likes me a lot.”

“He’s a friend of mine. I have great respect for him. We’ve gotten to know each other very well. A great leader. He’s a very talented man. I think he’s a very good man. He loves China, I can tell you. He loves China. He wants to do what’s right for China.”

“President Xi is a terrific guy. I like being with him a lot, and he’s a very special person.”

Etc., etc. Xi Jinping, mind you, is the most brutal leader in China since Mao Zedong. The Uyghurs in the gulag, among others, could attest to this.

Forced at last to say something about the democracy movement in Hong Kong, Trump said, “We have to stand with Hong Kong, but” — but! — “I’m also standing with President Xi.” Of course.

Even in the first months of the pandemic, Trump stood with Xi. Politico has a compilation here; CNN has a compilation here. As late as March 27, Trump was tweeting,

Just finished a very good conversation with President Xi of China. Discussed in great detail the CoronaVirus that is ravaging large parts of our Planet. China has been through much & has developed a strong understanding of the Virus. We are working closely together. Much respect!

But then came the pivot: “the Chinese virus,” “the kung flu,” and all the rest of it. Now Trump and his army act like the great scourge of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party.

“If I don’t win the election,” Trump said recently, “China will own the United States. You’re gonna have to learn to speak Chinese.”

Yeah, whatever, Big D. (If you’re interested in this subject, I recommend an excerpt from John Bolton’s memoir, The Room Where It Happened: here.)

• The Israeli Air Force released a statement, introducing it as follows: “Lt. Col. G, the IAF’s first female commander of a flight squadron, who piloted the lead Gulfstream G-550 in yesterday’s flyby alongside the IAF and German Air Force commanders, tells her story.” And that story is below. I thought I would just paste it, without commentary, editing, or anything else.

I’m a granddaughter to holocaust survivors on both sides of my family. My grandfather and grandmother found themselves alone in the world after their entire family perished. After the war ended, my grandma began wandering, with the hope of reaching Israel. Near the end of her journey, she lived in a monastery near “Dachau” for a year. There, she waited to board the “Exodus” ship to Israel. That is how she got to Israel, met my grandfather, and eventually started a family. My grandmother is not alive today, but I have no doubt that had she known that I, a pilot in the Israeli Air Force, would witness from above the very places she once roamed alone as a young girl, it would have touched her heart and probably made her shed a tear.

• In my neck of the woods — southeastern Michigan — Vartan Kupelian was a big deal. Especially if you liked and followed golf. He was the chief golf writer of the Detroit News. His obit, published in the News, is here.

I fastened on one line, in particular, because it tells you something so unmodern — so wonderful: “He routinely would avoid tournament pro-ams and media days, believing a journalist accepting free golf wasn’t proper etiquette.”

There’s a pro. Old-school.

• During the 2008 presidential campaign, I believe, I was shocked at the e-mails, comments, etc., I was getting: the sheer malevolence of them. I was relatively innocent then. Sadder and wiser now. I consulted Jonah Goldberg, who said, “The animal spirits come out in campaign season.”

Now they are out full time, right? There is no let-up.

Bill Buckley hated, almost more than anything else, the “totalist” spirit, as he called it. Politics à outrance (as he would have said). That is what we have now, I believe. Years ago, I would have thought it un-American, a spirit, a temper, belonging to bad old Europe.

But look around.

When I mentioned this on Twitter, Terry Teachout said, “It’s the essence of ideology: the personal MUST be political.” Yes. That’s the spirit I recoiled against back in dear old Ann Arbortown.

Terry further said, “I learned all this, by the way, from Kenneth Minogue’s ‘Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology,’ one of the half-dozen books that have taught me the most about the world in which we live today.”

If ever there was an anti-ideologue, it was Ken Minogue. He was a beautiful blend of the conservative and the liberal (in their highest senses). Once, I asked him, “Any relation to Kylie?” He said, “No, but after she came along, everyone knew how to pronounce my name.”

• End on a little music? Well, I have a review for you — of Martha Argerich. “Still Martha.” Have a great one, dear friends.

If you’d like to receive Impromptus by e-mail — links to new columns — write to jnordlinger@nationalreview.com.

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