Moral Equivalence and Donald Trump

September 10, 2016

Washington Post, September 10, 2016

Donald Trump’s suggestion that the former KGB agent who presides over a corrupt and authoritarian regime in Russia is a better leader than the president of the United States ought to invite far more Republican condemnation than it has received. Trump’s apologia for Vladimir Putin is morally and philosophically ghastly.
And long after this campaign is over, Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, will have to live with the fact that he backed up his boss – excuse me, his running mate. “I think it’s inarguable," Pence said, “that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country.”

Conservatives who have refused to break decisively with Trump ought to be ashamed of themselves because in doing so, they are violating the core principles laid down by one of their heroes, Jeane Kirkpatrick, who was President Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations. It was Kirkpatrick who in 1985 wrote an essay revered on the right called, “The Myth of Moral Equivalence.” Yes, she was writing about the old Soviet Union, not today’s Russia, but her points on false equivalences resonate still, given the nature of Putin’s rule.

To encourage more conservatives to speak out, I offer a few excerpts from Kirkpatrick’s essay:

“To destroy a society it is first necessary to delegitimize its basic institutions so as to detach the identifications and affections of its citizens from the institutions and authorities of the society marked for destruction.”

“An alliance among democracies is based on shared ideals. The process of delegitimization is, therefore, an absolutely ideal instrument for undermining an alliance, as well as for undermining a government. The NATO alliance among democracies simply cannot survive a widespread conviction among its members that there is no difference between the superpowers. It is not necessary to demonstrate that the Soviet Union is flawed, or deplorable. To destroy the alliance, it is only necessary to deprive the citizens of democratic societies of a sense of shared moral purpose which underlies common identifications and common efforts.”

“The totalitarian ideology, of which Marxism is the supreme example in our times, makes truth a function of power which is finally enforced by terror. Truth and reality are continually readjusted to serve the purposes of power at any given time. This is the reason that in 1984, history is continually re-written. It isn’t just re-written once; it’s re-written on a daily basis. And it is re-written from week to week and year to year to fit the requirements of the moment. Words, relationships, and events are redefined, and reality becomes a sub-category of politics.”

Let is be said that to this day, many on the left and center-left remain critical of Kirkpatrick’s efforts to distinguish between “totalitarian” regimes and “non-Communist autocracies.” Many liberals still disagree with the way in which Kirkpatrick applied this argument to defend Reagan’s Central America policies, and they still object to her broad-brush attacks on opponents to her left.

But the democratic left and the democratic right agree that there is vital a distinction to be drawn between democratic regimes – whether we agree with everything they do or not — and those, like Putin’s, that disrespect basic rights. To suggest any moral equivalence between the government President Obama leads and Putin’s regime by painting Putin as a better leader is to violate core principles that Reagan conservatives once held high.

Fortunately, the number of Republicans who realize they cannot associate with Trump’s comments is growing, though the reluctance of many others in the GOP to join them speaks ill of their party. Among those who broke the most decisively with Trump, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), offered these wonderfully acerbic and direct comments: “Other than destroying every instrument of democracy in his own country, having opposition people killed, dismembering neighbors through military force and being the benefactor of the butcher of Damascus, he’s a good guy.”

But in Trump’s eyes, and apparently in Pence’s, too, these things add up to making Putin “inarguably” a strong leader.

This op-ed was originally published in the Washington Post.
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