The following post is part of a symposium titled “Multiculturalism vs Patriotism,” which features an essay by Thomas D. Klingenstein and responses by David Azerrad, Matthew Continetti, Allen C. Guelzo, and Roger Kimball. The symposium appears in the Spring 2019 issue of the Claremont Review of Books and is available for immediate access here.
The two great themes of Thomas Klingenstein’s essay on America are rhetoric and reality. He comes to rhetoric through Abraham Lincoln. “[P]ublic sentiment,” said Lincoln, “is everything.”
With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.
To the surprise of many, myself included, Donald Trump, the flashy real-estate developer and reality TV star, turned out to be an astonishingly successful molder of public sentiment. Aristotle was correct when he said that rhetoric was the “art of persuasion.” As the cartoonist Scott Adams saw earlier than most, Trump was in this sense a master rhetorician, a “Great Persuader.”
Everything Trump does, Adams pointed out in a column late in the 2016 election cycle, is designed to shape public opinion. “He needed to be loud and outrageous in the primaries, so he was.” And Hillary?
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has revealed herself to be frail, medicated, and probably duplicitous about her health. We also hear reports that she’s a drinker with a bad temper. Suddenly, Clinton looks like the unstable personality in this race. Who do you want controlling the nuclear arsenal now?
That was a good question. Here’s another: Which candidate was the worse bigot? The one who wants stronger immigration policies to protect Americans or the one who castigated tens of millions of voters as a “basket of deplorables” who were “irredeemable” and “thankfully…not America”?
I think Adams was right: whatever else he is, Trump is a “Great Persuader.” Looking back to 2015, Adams wrote:
I told you that Trump was bringing a flamethrower to a stick fight. His talent for persuasion is so strong that he has effectively flipped the script and rewired the brains of the people watching this show.
But I’ll bet you still think Trump is “thin-skinned,” primarily because Clinton’s team has done a great job of branding him that way. The label sticks because Trump has a pattern of going on offense whenever he is attacked. But let me give you another framework to see this same set of facts. . . . If you were an alien from another planet, and you observed a lion killing a gazelle, you might think that lion was angry at its prey. You might think the lion was insulted that the gazelle was using its watering hole. What did the gazelle do to deserve that treatment? Is the lion being thin-skinned?
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The 2016 election cycle may seem very long ago. But the rhetorical style that Trump deployed then has been constantly on view since. The talent that enabled him to squish like bugs the 16 tip-top Republican candidates during the primary, and then crush the “inevitable” Hillary Clinton, has also enabled him to preside over what has been one of the most—maybe the single most—successful first two years of any president in our history.
And that brings me to Klingenstein’s second theme. I said it was “reality.” The negative term he uses is “multiculturalism.” “Foremost,” he writes, “President Trump has exposed multiculturalism as the political revolution it is.”
I think it is still an open question whether Trump has been successful in that task of exposure. He has managed it in substance. His attack on political correctness during the campaign and later, along with his truth-telling about illegal immigration and such multicultural cynosures as “transgender” bathrooms, has been a refreshing change from the tacit endorsement of identity politics by his predecessor. But the jury is still out, I believe, on the position of “public sentiment” on the issues.
About the substance of the issue, however, I have no doubt that Klingenstein is correct. As Samuel Huntington pointed out years ago, multiculturalism is “anti-European civilization…. It is basically an anti-Western ideology.” Quite right. The multiculturalists claim to be fostering a progressive cultural cosmopolitanism distinguished by superior sensitivity to the downtrodden and dispossessed. In fact, they encourage an orgy of self-flagellating liberal guilt as impotent as it is insatiable. The “sensitivity” of the multiculturalist is an index not of moral refinement but of moral vacuousness. Multiculturalism is a moral intoxicant; its thrill centers around the emotion of superior virtue; its hangover subsists on a diet of nescience and blighted “good intentions.”
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Klingenstein is right to stress the baneful effect of multiculuralism on education. “Education” is a synonym for “Our Future.” Schools and colleges are laboratories in which future citizens are forged. Wherever the imperatives of multiculturalism have touched the curriculum, they have left broad swaths of anti-Western attitudinizing competing for attention with quite astonishing historical blindness. Courses on minorities, women’s issues, and the Third World proliferate; the teaching of mainstream history slides into oblivion.
And note that multiculturalism is not only an academic phenomenon. The attitudes it fosters have profound social, as well as intellectual, consequences. One consequence has been a sharp rise in the phenomenon of immigration without—or with only partial—assimilation: a dangerous demographic trend that threatens American identity in the most basic way.
These various agents of dissolution are also elements in a wider culture war: the contest to define how we live and what counts as the good in the good life. Anti-Americanism occupies such a prominent place on the agenda of the culture wars precisely because the traditional values of American identity—articulated by the founders and grounded in a commitment to individual liberty and public virtue—are deeply at odds with the radical, de-civilizing tenets of the “multiculturalist” enterprise.
What we have witnessed with the triumph of multiculturalism is a kind of hypertrophy or perversion of liberalism, as its core doctrines are pursued to the point of caricature. “Freedom,” “diversity,” “equality,” “tolerance,” even “democracy”—how many definitive liberal virtues have been redacted into their opposites by the imperatives of political correctness? If “diversity” mandates bilingual education, then we must institute bilingual education, even if it results in the cultural disenfranchisement of those it was meant to benefit. The passion for equality demands “affirmative action,” even though the process of affirmative action depends upon treating people unequally. The French philosopher Jean-François Revel put it well when he observed, in 1983, that “Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because another power is trying to destroy it.” We are all in Thomas Klingenstein’s debt for reminding us of this forgotten truth.