The title of this post comes from a once-famous book about the senior British officials who, it turned out, spied for Stalin. I found myself thinking about that book’s title while watching the conservative movement react to news that yes, the Trump campaign was in contact with Russian agents, and was willing, indeed eager, to engage in collusion.
With very few exceptions, this reaction has taken two forms: defining collusion down, or celebrating it. Some are arguing that saying “I love it!” when Russian agents offer damaging information about your opponent doesn’t count as collusion unless it’s sustained (which it might have been, by the way – we just don’t know yet), or unless it determined the election outcome. By that standard, of course,
Kim Philby did nothing wrong, since the West ended up winning the Cold War.
Others are basically saying that cooperating with a foreign dictator is no big deal if it protects us against real threats, like universal health care.
The important thing to notice is that almost the entire conservative movement has bought into one or both of these arguments. After all the flag-waving, all the attacks on Democrats’ patriotism, essentially the whole GOP turns out to be OK with the moral equivalent of treason if it benefits their side in domestic politics. Which raises the question: what happened to these people?
One answer might be that right-wing ideology, the commitment to tax cuts for the rich and pain for the poor, has such a grip on conservative minds that nothing else matters. But while this is true for some apparatchiks, my guess is that it’s not nearly as true for many – certainly not for the Republican base in the general public. So why has partisanship become so extreme that it trumps patriotism?
Well, I have a thought inspired by something my CUNY colleague Branko Milanovic wrote recently about civil wars. Branko – who knows something about Yugoslavia! – argues against the view that civil wars are caused by deep divisions between populations who don’t know each other. The causation, he argues, goes the other way: when a civil war begins for whatever reason, that’s when the lines between the groups are drawn, and what may have been minor, fairly benign differences become irreconcilable gulfs.
My suggestion is that something like this happened to America, minus the mass bloodshed (so far, anyway).
The radicalization of the GOP began as a top-down affair, driven by big-money interests that financed campaigns and think tanks, pushing the party to the right. But to win elections, the forces engaged in this push cynically appealed to darker impulses – racism first and foremost, but also culture war, anti-intellectualism, and so on. To make this appeal, they created a media establishment – Fox News, talk radio, and so on – which drew in many working-class whites. This meant that a large segment of the population was no longer hearing the same news – basically not experiencing the same account of reality – as the rest of us. So what had been real but not extreme differences became extreme differences in political outlook.
And political figures either adapted or were pushed out. There once were Republicans who would have reacted with horror to Trump’s embrace of Putin, but they’ve left the scene, or are no longer considered Republicans.
This has troubling implications for both the short and the long run. In the short run, it probably means that no matter how bad the Trump revelations get, most Republicans, both in the base and in Congress, will stick with him – because taking him down would be a victory for liberals, who are worse than anything.
In the long run, it makes you wonder whether and how we can get the country we used to be back. As Branko says, there was a time when Serbs and Croats seemed to get along fairly well, indeed intermarrying at a high rate. But could anyone now put Yugoslavia back together? At this rate, we’ll soon be asking the same question about America.