Bret Stephens on the United States After Trump

On a December 23 JUDJ event, Bret Stephens discussed “After Four Years of Trump, Can We Be Healed?”
December 24, 2020
Bret Stephens (Twitter)

On December 23, Jews United for Democracy and Justice (JUDJ) and Community Advocates, Inc. co-hosted a talk with Bret Stephens titled, “After Four Years of Trump, Can We Be Healed?”

JUDJ is a “broad cross-section of American Jews who stand with our community and others to assert a Jewish voice to safeguard the principles and foundations of our constitutional democracy.” Community Advocates, Inc. is a nonprofit “that advocates innovative approaches to human relations and race relations.” Since April 25, 2020, the two organizations have hosted various scholars and experts on topics related to “rising threats to religious tolerance, equal rights, a free and fair press, human dignity, and long-held norms of decency and civil society.”

The latest panel featured Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative journalist and columnist for the New York Times, in conversation with Henry Weinstein, a professor at UC Irvine Law. Weinstein opened the conversation by asking Stephens “when or whether” there will be an end to Trump, much less Trumpism.

Stephens acknowledged that he has been a “vociferous” opponent of Trump since he first announced his candidacy. To him, the lasting danger of Trump is that he “doesn’t simply represent a cult of personality… Trump represents a culture of illiberalism and of a consistent philosophical assault on the moral, constitutional and value-based underpinnings of a liberal democratic society.”

What accounts for the burgeoning nature of Trumpism, Stephens hypothesized, is Trump’s persistence in living in a “fact-free universe” and his assault on “basic constitutional norms.” As an example, Stephens noted the president’s unprecedented refusal to recognize the media and the electoral college calling the election. “That’s quite staggering and something… extraordinarily worrisome because it is transforming the set of norms and values that are kind of the quiet invisible underpinning of any successful liberal democracy.” Stephens added that “Richard Nixon looks like a paragon of rectitude and virtue compared to what we have now.”

Stephens acknowledged that some of the doomsaying surrounding Trump never came to fruition. But he echoed his December 14 column, “Donald Trump and the Damage Done,” to argue that Trump corroded the invisible structures within American society — trust. In particular, Stephens argued that Trump is the culmination of “decades of declining trust in institutions and in one another,” but he also was an “accelerant” of that decline. That lack of trust hampers successful societies, Stephens noted, drawing a comparison to low-trust countries like Lebanon and Brazil. He predicted that when historians look back at “what really went wrong in America” in the early twenty-first century, they will say, “Trump was the moment when Americans lost faith in their institutions, in each other and ultimately in themselves.”

Weinstein noted that Trump is not alone in his beliefs — many of his supporters legitimately believe that Trump won the 2020 election. Stephens added that this conspiracist manner of thinking is dangerous because it is “impervious to argumentation.” That kind of fact-free thinking, Stephens asserted, “contributed to the disasters of the Weimar Republic and ultimately the rise of Nazism,” though he underscored that he was not comparing Trump supporters to Nazis.

Stephens and Weinstein then drew attention to the division within the Republican party between Trump supporters and non-Trump supporters. Weinstein pointed to Thomas Friedman’s December 22 New York Times column on “principled conservatives” — those who “put country before party and refused to buckle under Trump’s demands — versus “unprincipled conservatives.”

On the call, Stephens added his own spin on the fracture, arguing that although he identifies as a traditional conservative (low taxes, small government, spending more on defense and so on), conservatism under Trump became a type of “anti-liberalism.” This growth of illiberalism among conservatives posed a problem to Stephens, who identifies as a “conservative within the broad universe of liberal values,” believing in tolerance, free speech, individual rights and dignity. (Stephens did note that illiberalism is not limited to the right; he pointed to cases of harmful tribalism on the left, such as identity politics and the “Bernie Bros.”)

Stephens expressed hope that Trump’s exit “without grace” would force some Republicans to realize the damage the president has caused. He pointed to televangelist Pat Robertson, whom to Stephens’ “amazement” admitted that Trump is “very erratic.”

Stephens expressed hope that Trump’s exit “without grace” would force some Republicans to realize the damage the president has caused.

But Stephens expressed personal despondency with the fact that several of his fellow conservatives and friends had the chance to stand up against a person “they understood was completely unfit and immoral,” but they “didn’t take the opportunity to do so.” Stephens cautioned that to heal the country, we must be “measured” about what motivated people to vote for Trump. He noted that many people voted for Trump despite hating him personally.

Stephens and Weinstein discussed how the Republican party changed in 2015, when Trump insulted Senator John McCain’s service in the Vietnam War. To Stephens, Rush Limbaugh’s defense of Trump’s comments began a point of “moral inversion in the Republican party.” Real courage was no longer honoring military service but instead “a kind of shamelessness.” That shamelessness was part and parcel to Trump’s success, Stephens argued, pointing to Trump’s refusal to apologize.

Despite record levels of partisanship, Stephens suspected that Biden will have “a very good presidency” so long as he picks a few topics to work on with moderates, such as comprehensive immigration reform, foreign policy focusing on East Asia and infrastructure. Biden’s success, Stephens charged, will come down to the president-elect “reminding himself of his inner centrist.” If Biden skews left in his governance, Stephens predicted, it will be a “much more fraught four years.”

Stephens closed the call with an appeal to unity. He expressed that he refuses to “see other Americans who just happen to have a different point of view as my enemy.” “I’d love for American politics to come back to a place where at a minimum, we never see someone who just takes a different view or is on a different side from a partisan point of view as anything other than a friend,” he added.

But Stephens noted that it was a “really good sign” that JUDJ and Community Advocates, Inc. were maintaining a “really vibrant civic life.” “We should cherish it and keep going,” he stated.

You can watch the full event here.

Ari Berman is the Op-Ed Editor at the Journal.

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