Some things are right even if Donald Trump believes them. The President’s Constitution Day speech was a doughty defence of America from the slanders of its enemies domestic, but it was also an uncanny, if wholly inadvertent, defence of liberalism. Uncanny because liberals have waited a long time to hear a senior liberal politician demur from the ascendant anti-liberalism, let alone challenge its ideology head-on, and yet the dissent is being led by an anti-liberal of a different stripe.
Mainstream Democrats quibble here and there with one aspect or another of the new regime — whether the giddy apologias for violence; conspiracy theories about routine, homicidal police racism; or contempt for freedom of speech — but few are willing to attack the worldview in toto. Coercive progressivism is taking over the American centre-left with nary a grunt of resistance.
Speaking yesterday at the National Archives, Trump advanced a populist case for patriotism in American education to counter ‘decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools’. Wrenched out of its present context, this sounds like well-worn right-wing rhetoric about red education —paranoia over the benign idealism of the teaching profession meets cynical Republican efforts to cut federal funding for education.
Yet, in the 2020 cultural revolution, we can see the results of an unchecked march of politics through American higher (and not only higher) education. A generation or two — maybe more — has been taught that America is a force for evil, that virtue and vice are racially contingent and that the liberal order must be torn down and those who disagree torn down with it. The campus has become the intersection for identity politics, conspiracy theories and authoritarianism and, inevitably, home to the ideology in which all three are mired: anti-Semitism. Liberal education in America is now thoroughly illiberal.
Trump identified the source of the rot as critical race theory, which he called ‘a Marxist doctrine’ (debatable) put forth by those who ‘want to burn down the principles enshrined in our founding documents’ (less debatable). He cited by name the New York Times’s 1619 Project, the brainchild of radical activist Nikole Hannah-Jones and based on the premise that America is a story of slavery, not freedom. The President’s objection to 1619-ism is that of a reactionary but in his chauvinism and his nostalgia he rebuts lies that liberals have allowed to stand for fear of being tossed in with the ever-expanding definition of racism. He pledged that ‘we will reclaim our history and our country for citizens of every race, colour, religion and creed’, or as the Associated Press headline on his speech put it: ‘Trump downplays legacy of slavery in appeal to white voters’.
In fact, what Trump did was to call by its name the racism that underpins the arriving orthodoxy:
“A perfect example of critical race theory was recently published by the Smithsonian Institution. This document alleged that concepts such as hard work, rational thinking, the nuclear family, and belief in God were not values that unite all Americans, but were instead aspects of 'whiteness'. This is offensive and outrageous to Americans of every ethnicity, and it is especially harmful to children of minority backgrounds who should be uplifted, not disparaged.
Along came this sinister nationalist demagogue, this inflamer of prejudice and merchant of division, to give liberals a lesson in standing up for liberalism. This is how they should be talking about racial radicalism and historical distortion but an illiberal president has been left to do the talking because liberals are too feart to raise their voice.
Trump identified and rejected the ethnic separatism of the contemporary left and contrasted it with the philosophy of one of the noblest anti-racists who ever lived:
“We embrace the vision of Martin Luther King, where children are not judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. The left is attempting to destroy that beautiful vision and divide Americans by race in the service of political power. By viewing every issue through the lens of race, they want to impose a new segregation, and we must not allow that to happen.
How did it come to pass that Donald Trump, repudiator of American civility and decency, was the leader to speak these words and not the Democrat nominee for president? What has gone wrong in liberalism that Joe Biden — Joe Biden — has shied away from tackling the crank campus racism busily devouring the party of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy? When Trump branded critical race theory ‘toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together’, how did he get there before a man who is the walking definition of a moderate Democrat?
The right is currently attempting to cast Biden as a frontman for socialism, as absurd an effort as the left’s caricaturing of Mitt Romney in 2012 as Jesse Helms with a better hairdo. But the Biden of the past five decades, the blue-collar pragmatist, has not been to the fore in this campaign. These are revolutionary times and perhaps even a seasoned politician struggles to find his footing, but he had better find it fast. If he wins in November, Biden will have to defend liberalism not only from the nationalist right but from the progressive left. It will be a lonely presidency.