The GOP Candidates Debate: Is America Magic?
Last night’s Republican debate highlighted a number of fault lines in the GOP. The most important one related to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, though the cracks extend into other critical issues, including immigration. There are complex practical reasons to argue about the wisest U.S. policies toward the deeply conflicted, backward and violence-ridden region, where a single reliable ally, Israel, shines forth as a worthy exception, and as a magnet of envy and hate. Too few Republican candidates are willing to question the stale assumptions of their party’s donor and activist class, or admit the gross mistakes that Republican leaders have made in the past — and which we will make again, unless we start thinking clearly.
If we want clear thought we need to interrogate our assumptions, and ask impertinent questions. Here is the central one:
Is America Magic?
We can all agree in rejecting Barack Obama’s post-Marxist pessimism, which sees America as just another of the wicked Western colonial powers that built their empires on the oppression of ethnic and religious minorities, exploitative capitalist economics and military force. That much is false in principle, and has proved disastrous in eight years of practice. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina all agree. But the question doesn’t end there. In fact, by accepting some version of “American exceptionalism” we permit the debate to begin.
There is something special about America, something honorable and good. Does that mean that the U.S. can do what no other nation in history has ever managed successfully? Can we really:
- Accept and assimilate unprecedented numbers of immigrants from every culture on earth, regardless of their skill levels, education, religious, political or cultural beliefs?
- Advance our system of government, with its unique history, as the solution to the political crises of every nation on earth?
- Base our foreign policy decisions not on advancing the interests and safety of our citizens, but rather on promoting our political principles — confident that they are so overpoweringly attractive that they will dissolve ancient conflicts and turn target nations into allies?
- Outspend and out-muscle every other nation on earth, and every combination of nations that could possibly form against us?
- Police the internal human rights policies and settle the border squabbles of an untold number of nations, however powerful (i.e., Ukraine and Russia)?
- At the same time remain prosperous, respect our Constitution, train our young people to be competitive, and resolve our massive debt crisis?
There are some American exceptionalists who believe that we can do most or all those things at once, and that to say otherwise is pessimistic, unpatriotic, even un-American. Many who hold these beliefs also hold leading positions at Republican think tanks, magazines and other “establishment” GOP institutions. Among the candidates who debated last night, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina either lean in this direction or are situated squarely in that camp, one that has long borne the title neoconservatism. (John Kasich said that it’s time we “punched Russia in the nose.”)
I wrote an essay back in 2003 that tried to explain why this version of Americanism became dominant during the Cold War, entitled “America the Abstraction.” I won’t rehash it here, but I think that the essay holds up remarkably well.
Other American exceptionalists, patriots and conservatives think that America cannot in fact accomplish all those things at the same time — that no nation can. In fact, we argue that much of the daunting mission statement laid out above is suited not to a nation but to the Church, which because of its supernatural mission and the constant outpouring of God’s grace can break down the very gates of hell. G.K. Chesterton once wisely wrote that America is a “nation with the soul of a church.” But it doesn’t have the Church’s gifts or mission, or any divine guarantees. In fact, it’s a complex historical artifact, which could break down if we abuse it. Jesus never promised otherwise. Conservatives who agree with this second, more pessimistic or humble vision of America, would include Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Ron Paul and Ben Carson.
The way we answer this question about America’s identity will determine how we think about any number of practical decisions that the next commander-in-chief will face.
- Should he admit large numbers of Muslim immigrants, confident that the power of our popular culture and the appeal of our free society will break down jihadist beliefs, and teach them to shun sharia?
- Should he shun the help that Vladimir Putin has offered us in crushing ISIS, assured that the U.S. can locate, train and install in power “moderate,” democratic-minded Sunni Islamic rebels in Syria — who will be so inspired by our democratic example that they won’t ethnically cleanse the Christian and Alawite minorities whom Assad today protects? (Remember that the last democratic regime we installed, in Iraq, permitted or connived in the violent expulsion of more than 1 million Iraqi Christians.)
- Should he help to overthrow secular dictators in countries like Libya, Syria, Iraq and Egypt to make room for democratic elections that well might yield radical Islamic governments?
- Should he be willing (as Christie insisted) to shoot down Russian planes in defense of those “moderate” Muslims?
These are deadly serious questions, and they turn not on data or wonkish speculation, but on a humble and cool-eyed assessment of reality. We must be, as Our Lord told us, both “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
It is not, I’d argue, un-American or un-Christian, or pacifist or isolationist, to insist that our nation and the Church are different things — and that confusing them is the surest way to insure disaster abroad, and Democratic victories at the polls. Remember that Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 over the hawkish, open-borders neoconservative John McCain had grave consequences for religious liberty here at home.
There were other factors at play, of course, including the 2008 financial crisis, but the perception that Republicans were addicted to risky foreign policy adventures sealed the deal. Obama got his chance to impose Obamacare, to grant executive amnesties to immigrants, to put women into combat, to force through funding of Planned Parenthood, and worst of all, to appoint the likes of liberal judicial activists Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The next president will appoint at least two, but perhaps as many as four, more justices to the court. If we mistake America for the Church Militant, the voters may go on rejecting us, and judges will go on carving away the freedoms of the real Church, along with the true exceptionalism of America into the bargain.