The Corner

World

‘Explain That to Me Someday, Okay?’

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump in Singapore, June 12, 2018 (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

I have a piece on the homepage today, “Trump and Dictators: A review.” And this morning, I thought about why I became a conservative in the first place, long ago. We all have our own reasons, our own “journeys.” (We also have our own understandings of conservatism.)

I found that you could not talk to the Left. They were dogmatic, blinkered, intolerant. My way or the highway, you know? Conservatives, you could talk to. They were liberal-minded, so to speak.

Maybe because there were so few of them, where I lived? Maybe because they were in no position to lord it over others? Majorities like to intimidate minorities. In any case, you could talk to conservatives, about anything — even disagree.

The Left was obsessed with class and race. I thought these obsessions were misguided and harmful. The conservatives knew that America was a fluid society, with most people rising, rather than falling. They also espoused the old liberal “colorblindness,” and E pluribus unum.

What era am I talking about, by the way? Well, I graduated from high school, and entered college, in 1982.

In short order, I was convinced by free-market economics. And by anti-abortion arguments. I know you’re supposed to say “pro-life,” but I’ve always favored “anti-abortion,” for two main reasons: Abortion is a good thing to be anti-; and I recoil from euphemisms.

What about foreign policy? That played a huge role in my adoption of conservatism. (Let me say, once more, that everyone has his own understanding of conservatism, and a more public understanding can undergo great shifts, as we have seen in recent years.) I thought the hawks had it right: both “practically” and “morally,” to use two imperfect words.

Conservatives looked at the world with realistic eyes. They also emphasized freedom, democracy, and human rights. National interest came first, needless to say. But it was hard to separate our interests from the interests of people generally. President Reagan could hardly talk without speaking for freedom, democracy, and human rights.

He had blind spots, of course, as did conservatives at large, as do people at large. But he, and we, were pretty good.

The Left favored freedom, democracy, and human rights in three countries, chiefly: the Philippines (Marcos), Chile (Pinochet), and South Africa. The Right tended to make excuses. I think the Left had the high ground in these cases (and we could talk about all three, at length, someday). Regardless, the world was vast. It included the Iron Curtain countries, Cuba, China, the Arab world . . .

As a rule, Reagan & Co. hated dictatorship, not just for Americans or Europeans, but for anybody. They thought America had a special role, as a nation founded on universal principles. (“We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .”) They hated “moral equivalence,” to use a phrase that featured in our vocabulary: the idea that liberal-democratic states were no better than illiberal, authoritarian ones.

The current Republican president has provided spectacular examples of moral equivalence. I will cite three here.

During the 2016 campaign, David E. Sanger of the New York Times asked Trump about Turkey, and Erdogan’s assault on civil liberties. Trump answered, “When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.”

After Trump was sworn in as president, Bill O’Reilly interviewed him on Fox. O’Reilly said, “Putin’s a killer.” Trump said, “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?”

This summer, Jonathan Swan, of Axios, asked Trump about reports that Russia is supplying the Taliban with weapons. Trump said, “Well, we supplied weapons when they were fighting Russia too.” For emphasis, Trump added, “I’m just saying, we did that too.”

(Apparently, the president was referring to the Soviet war in Afghanistan.)

We are all shaped by our personal experiences and our reading. Ages ago, I read a lot of Buckley, Solzhenitsyn, Conquest, Podhoretz, Koestler, Hollander, Pipes, etc. It was freedom this, freedom that; tyranny this, tyranny that. I have never been able to shake it, and don’t want to.

In the last 25 years, I have interviewed a great many people from “non-consensual countries,” as Bob Conquest would say: dictatorships, tyrannies, totalitarian states. I have interviewed former political prisoners and future political prisoners. One morning, I interviewed a current political prisoner (Cuban), who was on the lam (and called me through an intermediary in Florida).

They tend to look to the United States, these people: if not for material help, then for moral support, or solidarity — even simple understanding.

We all have our concerns, interests, priorities. Our values, principles, ideals. I often have occasion to quote a Lyle Lovett song: “It may be no big deal to you, but it’s a very big deal to me.” I can’t dictate what you care about, and you can’t dictate what I care about.

Foreign policy involves a lot of nose-holding. I stress this in my piece today. Inevitably, you have to deal with bad actors in this nasty, dangerous world. We once locked arms with Stalin. But you don’t have to flack for tyrants, and you don’t have to perfume them.

And if you do: Maybe get something for it?

Trump on Xi Jinping: “great guy,” “terrific guy,” “incredible guy,” “very special person,” “friend of mine.” Trump on Putin: “great guy,” “good person,” “terrific person.” Trump on Kim Jong-un: “great leader,” “great personality,” “very honorable,” etc.

There is no “realism” in the world that calls for this.

To Bob Woodward, President Trump said, “It’s funny. The relationships I have — the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them. You know? Explain that to me someday, okay?”

Here is Trump on his rapport with Kim Jong-un: “You meet a woman. In one second, you know whether or not it’s going to happen. It doesn’t take you ten minutes, and it doesn’t take you six weeks. It’s like, ‘Whoa. Okay.’ You know? It takes somewhat less than a second.”

I have a lot more of this in my piece today, if you can stand it. Again, here.