Finally, some sanity. I have spent the last week in the US, where there is wall to wall coverage of the presidential primaries, most of it dominated by reporting and analysis of the Trump campaign. This morning I woke to a retired general pointing out that the military are not the plaything of the President, but are sworn to defend the US Constitution and to abide by various instruments that demand military personnel respect the human rights of their enemies. His intervention came in response to repeated declarations by Donald Trump that he would bring back waterboarding and target the families of terrorists for assassination.
Opposing the general was a former veteran who was now serving as an elected official in government. When asked to respond to the general’s comments he started bemoaning the lack of attention given to returned veterans and implied that the general was giving more consideration to the enemy than to US veterans. By some bizarre twist of emotional logic this justified whatever violence Trump wanted to inflict upon the enemy.
In his response the morally bankrupt nature of political populism was exposed. Rather than grappling with the complexities of a situation and being driven through those complexities by a strong sense of moral vision, careful analysis, and an empathetic listening to all parties, populist movements draw on feelings of alienation and grievance and seek to resolve them by promising violence to others, creating a sense of power and control and the illusion that by exercising power over others the original grievances will somehow be resolved. Moral courage and clear thinking are replaced with a visceral pragmatism. The only outcome can ever be the collapse of populist movements under the weight of their unfulfilled false promises, but the damage done along the way can be devastating.
It is easy to take liberal democracy for granted, to respond to the complex challenges of our times with a cheap populism that simplistically sheets blame for those challenges to a group we can resist and dominate. We should not forget that Germany was one of the most civilised nations on earth before the rise of Hitler, or that the Serbs who turned on their Muslim countrymen in the Balkans were once neighbours and best of friends. Freedom and respect for the rights of all does not always come easily but must be preserved by clear moral vision and the determination to act with moral courage.
It’s up to Americans to deal with their issues, but I hope that more and more of their leaders start speaking like the general.
In my own country I see visceral pragmatism at work in popular attitudes towards refugees, Muslim immigration, and our refusal to comprehensively deal with the violent dispossession of our indigenous peoples. I see it in our churches in the sense of marginalisation that has come with the advent of secular pluralism, the false equation of the loss of privilege with the ridiculous claims of persecution, and the rise of movements that sheet home blame to “the gay lobby” or doctrinally suspect groups. And I suspect it lurks somewhere in the recesses of my heart, but I am determined to resist, to seek the path of gracious love, moral courage, and informed debate.