Yesterday, I wrote about the flat-out refusal of many on the Left to acknowledge that Donald Trump did not appear ex nihilo. History, I argued, did not begin on November 8, and, insofar as Trump will inherit a White House with sweeping powers, it is because his predecessors — including Barack Obama — wanted it that way. I also contended that the “illiberal” label that is correctly attached to Trump is not unique to him, but that he is on a continuum of illiberalism that features an awful lot of progressives too. “Only a fool,” I concluded, “shows up at the changing of the guard and complains about the soldiers’ new uniforms.”
Those who have responded to my piece have chosen to ignore this second part entirely. “Certainly,” they have said, “Obama has concentrated power in the executive. But that is a different question than is ‘illiberalism’ per se.” This, of course, is true. But, given that I wrote about both developments, and not merely executive power, it is irrelevant.
That said, I want to make the point about illiberalism at greater length, because I think it’s important. During the original exchange that prompted my piece, I was told by Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan that Trump is especially dangerous because he enjoys cover from powerful places. “Our institutions/elites,” Nyhan wrote, “keep accommodating illiberal behavior.” In a vacuum, this contention is correct: “Our institutions/elites” do indeed “keep accommodating illiberal behavior,” and I imagine that many will do so in defense of Trump. But if this is a problem that you have only noticed upon the election of Donald Trump — as seems to be the case with Nyhan, who has dismissed anything that happened before Nov. 8th as either magically “different” or as an “NRO culture war thing” — then there is something seriously wrong with you. In fact, if you can’t see that Donald Trump is in large part the product of “our institutions/elites . . . accommodating illiberal behavior” then you are a damn fool. I opposed Trump during the primaries and the general — and I will continue to criticize him strongly now — precisely because he is illiberal. But that illiberalism doesn’t represent a break from the trends of the last two decades or so; it represents the consequence. And there is nobody in America who should understand this better than a college professor.
Pick a liberal value or “democratic norm” — speech, religious freedom, due process, intellectual diversity — and you will soon see how frequently it comes under attack. In the last few years, it has become normal for students to request safe spaces so that they can hide from reality, to insist that those they dislike are barred from campus, and to refuse to read books they think might upset them. In the last few years, a majority of Democrats have come to believe that speech they personally deem “hateful” should be prohibited by law, and they have coalesced around the conviction that the government should superintend the political expression of unions, charities, corporations, and anybody who sees fit to criticize Hillary. In the last few years, it has become the stated position of the Democratic party that nuns should be forced to purchase birth control and that businesses should be forced to bake cakes for weddings with which they vehemently disagree, and it has become acceptable for news outlets to target TV stars because they maintain traditional religious beliefs. And, in the last few years, due process — one of the key “liberal” “democratic norms” about which Nyhan and his friends are worried — has been routinely and systematically undermined in the name of that most malleable of excuses, “social justice.”
Don’t believe me? Consider that the founder of Vox, Ezra Klein, believes that we should host show trials for those accused of rape, and that false convictions are the necessary price of social change. Consider that Hillary Clinton insists that anyone making a sexual assault charge must, by default, be believed. Consider that President Obama and pretty much every single Democrat in the country believes that the government should be allowed to strip the constitutional rights of Americans on secret lists. Need I go on? Even Trump’s ridiculous views on flag-burning were once echoed, in part least, by Hillary Clinton. “American liberals,” Damon Linker noted earlier in the year, “have a corrosive illiberalism problem.”
As for the political process, well . . . that hasn’t all been kumbaya and roses either. In both 2002 and 2009, Hillary Clinton suggested openly that George W. Bush was not elected president of the United States. In 2010, during his State of the Union address, President Obama slammed the Supreme Court for having had the temerity to oppose him on the meaning of the First Amendment (Obama has also enjoyed holding set-piece speeches at which he threatens the Court just before a big decision). And just this year, the Democrats’ candidate for president outlined a vision for the Supreme Court that was so lawless and norm-smashing that writers on her own side felt the need to call her out for it.
Clearly, none of this excuses Donald Trump’s flaws — nor, if he turns out to be a genuine threat, will it make him less worrying. And it won’t excuse those on the Right who, looking around them, thought, “well I guess we need our own strongman.” Tu quoque is a logical fallacy now, as ever. But it does give the lie to the idea that Trump came from nowhere, and it absolutely, indisputably, unequivocally makes the case that any “social scientist” who has been astonished to see Trump’s excesses has long been asleep at the wheel. It is not “whataboutism” to place Trump on a a continuum. It is not a “distraction” to try to figure out how we got here. It is not a waste of time to observe that much of the illiberalism we saw on the Right during the recent election — and I wrote about it extensively and harshly — was a reaction to provocations from the Left that have been largely ignored or explained away. Past is prologue; time does not begin anew on inauguration day.