The Thomas Hobbes Presidency

Conservatives were outraged by Obama’s apologies. What about Trump’s slander?

‘Leviathan,’ by Thomas Hobbes, 1651. Photo: Getty Images 

By Bret Stephens

First, the obvious: Had it been Barack Obama, rather than Donald Trump, who suggested a moral equivalency between the United States and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Republican politicians would not now be rushing through their objections to the comparison in TV interviews while hoping to pivot to tax reform.

Had it been the president of three weeks ago who had answered Bill O’Reilly’s comment that Mr. Putin “is a killer” by saying, “We’ve got a lot of killers,” and “What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?” conservative pundits wouldn’t rest with calling the remark “inexplicable” or “troubling.” They would call it moral treason and spend the next four years playing the same clip on repeat, right through the next election.

In 2009, Mr. Obama gave a series of speeches containing passing expressions of regret for vaguely specified blemishes from the American past. Examples: “The United States is still working through some of our own darker periods in history.” And “we’ve made some mistakes.” This was the so-called Apology Tour, in which the word “apologize” was never uttered. Even so, conservatives still fume about it.

This time, Mr. Trump didn’t apologize for America. He indicted it. He did so in language unprecedented for any sitting or former president. He did it in a manner guaranteed, and perhaps calculated, to vindicate every hard-left slander of “Amerika.” If you are the sort who believes the CIA assassinated JFK, masterminded the crack-cocaine epidemic, and deliberately lied us into the war in Iraq—conspiracy theories on a moral par with the way the Putin regime behaves in actual fact—then this president is for you.

Only he’s worse.

For the most part, the left’s various indictments of the U.S., whether well- or ill-grounded, have had a moral purpose: to shame Americans into better behavior. We are reminded of the evils of slavery and Jim Crow in order not to be racist. We dilate on the failure in Vietnam to guard against the arrogance of power. We recall the abuses of McCarthyism in order to underscore the importance of civil liberties.

Mr. Trump’s purpose, by contrast, isn’t to prevent a recurrence of bad behavior. It’s to permit it. In this reading, Mr. Putin’s behavior isn’t so different from ours. It’s largely the same, except more honest and effective. The U.S. could surely defeat ISIS—if only it weren’t hampered by the kind of scruples that keep us from carpet bombing Mosul in the way the Russians obliterated Aleppo. The U.S. could have come out ahead in Iraq—if only we’d behaved like unapologetic conquerors, not do-gooder liberators, and taken their oil.

This also explains why Mr. Trump doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism, calling the idea “insulting [to] the world” and seeing it as an undue burden on our rights and opportunities as a nation. Magnanimity, fair dealing, example setting, win-win solutions, a city set upon a hill: All this, in the president’s mind, is a sucker’s game, obscuring the dog-eat-dog realities of life. Among other distinctions, Mr. Trump may be our first Hobbesian president.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the political potency of this outlook, with its left-right mix of relativism and jingoism. If we’re no better than anyone else, why not act like everyone else? If phrases such as “the free world” or the “liberal international order” are ideological ploys by which the Davos elite swindle the proletarians of Detroit, why sacrifice blood and treasure on their behalf? Nationalism is usually a form of moral earnestness. Mr. Trump’s genius has been to transform it into an expression of cynicism.

That cynicism won’t be easy to defeat. Right now, a courageous Russian opposition activist named Vladimir Kara-Murza is fighting for his life in a Moscow hospital, having been poisoned for a second time by you-can-easily-guess-who. Assuming Mr. Trump is even aware of the case, would he be wrong in betting that most Americans are as indifferent to his fate as he is?

The larger question for conservatives is how Mr. Trump’s dim view of the world will serve them over time. Honorable Republicans such as Nebraska’s Sen. Ben Sasse have been unequivocal in their outrage, which will surely cost them politically. Others have hit the mute button, on the theory that it’s foolish to be baited by the president’s every crass utterance. The risk is that silence quickly becomes a form of acquiescence. Besides, since when did conservatives reared to their convictions by the rhetoric of Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan hold words so cheap?

Speaking of Reagan, Feb. 6 would have been his 106th birthday. Perhaps because he had been an actor, the 40th president knew that Americans preferred stories in which good guys triumphed over bad ones, not the ones in which they were pretty much all alike. Conservatives should beware the president’s invitation to a political film noir in which the outcome is invariably bleak.

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