The false equivalence of ‘false equivalence’

Comparing Trump to his predecessors doesn’t have to mean equating them

During the Wars of the Roses, English subjects were forced to pick sides in an ongoing dispute over the throne. Edward IV, the Yorkist candidate, and Henry VI, the Lancastrian candidate, each ruled England for two separate periods in the 1460s and 1470s. The Wars divided families, intensified regional rivalries, and accorded special political power to members of the nobility–such as Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, who switched allegiances twice.

The intensity of political partisanship in the 1460s in England was remarkable, but in 2017 in the United States a similar partisanship is normal. The two-party system has polarized public opinion on a wide range of issues. The laundry list of political and especially social topics on which voters must now hold fierce opinions doubtless would have struck early 20th-century Americans (not to mention 15th-century English citizens) as bizarre. There can be false equivalence between positions on either side of the partisan divide; but there can also be false equivalence between criticizing both sides and ‘false equivalence’ itself. The second point is important, because it opens space for historical analysis.

The polarization of public opinion is constantly enforcing the presumption that every issue has two sides. So people imagine an “alt-left” to mirror the (self-styled) alt-right. (There is no alt-left.) So people cling to a scientifically grounded denial of anthropogenic climate change to neutralize the scientific consensus that humans are heating up the Earth. (The very few scientists who deny climate change tend to be bankrolled by the fossil fuel industry.)

Thus, with good reason, the charge of false equivalence. Yet in other cases, the charge of false equivalence obstructs meaningful analysis.

Take, for example, Egyptian authoritarian Sisi’s visit to the White House last month and Trump’s praise for him. Liberals were horrified by the visit itself and particularly by Trump’s effusive comments. Republicans, leftists, and independents, meanwhile, recalled Obama’s sale of billions of dollars of military weapons to Egypt under Sisi, after briefly suspending the arrangement. Republicans, as I take it, made this argument cynically, to exculpate Trump. Leftists and independents, as I take it, made the argument critically, to highlight continuity in the U.S.’s hypocritical stance toward Egypt under both the Obama and Trump administrations. As Sharif Kouddous put it:

I think [Sisi’s recent visit] also begs the question of how much the actual U.S. relationship will change, because we have to realize that Obama, before him, echoed decades of U.S. policy towards Egypt, which prioritizes perceived national security interests over human rights and rule of law.

Both arguments, from the left and the right, were met with charges of false equivalence from centrists who oppose Trump. But there is no real equivalence between the Republican argument in this case, which is false equivalence, and the leftist/independent argument, which connects Obama and Trump not to equate them but to place Trump’s actions in historical context. It’s only the hyperpartisanship of public discourse in 2017 that makes criticism of Obama seem like it must entail assent to Trump.

Rather, for many observers, better than Donald Trump is too low a bar at which to set evaluation of political leaders. Between better than Donald Trump and good Kouddous and others see a vast space in which to wreak havoc at home and abroad.

This is an important argument to advance if you believe that Trump is not an alien incursion into the status quo–a belief shared by the U.S. center-left and center-right (glumly) and by the far right (joyously)–but is in fact a result of the status quo. If you believe Trump is the distilled expression of militarist impulses that have always defined U.S. foreign policy, then you will want to be able to point that out without ceding ground for dissent in less flagrant cases.

Political discourse in the comparative mode (better than…, at least s/he’s not…) will always be limited by the pieties and blind spots of partisanship. In the 1460s and 1470s, English subject whipped themselves into a fervor supporting one of two candidates for the throne (whose policies, from this historical retrospect, appear more or less interchangeable). It is urgently necessary that it remain possible to hold in the mind two analogous but different criticisms, one on each side of the aisle, simultaneously.

Political fictions

Medieval literature shows ways out of the dystopian novel Trump is forcing us to inhabit

President Trump’s new executive order on immigration, issued today, closely resembles the January executive order that preceded it. A federal judge in Washington state halted the first order on constitutional grounds, a decision upheld by a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision last month.

The first executive order, according to some political observers, was straight out of a dystopian novel. Titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” the order immediately suspended all travel to the U.S. from Syria and six other Muslim-majority countries. The move appeared hastily executed and lacked a coherent rationale from the perspective of national security. Why those seven countries, critics wanted to know, and not other Muslim-majority countries? Why bar entry to green-card holders, who had already been intensely vetted? Why provide no warning, stranding thousands of legal immigrants and long-time permanent residents abroad?

Today’s order has the same title and the same purpose. Iraq has negotiated an exit from the list, and the second order, unlike the first, does not specify an indefinite ban on Syrian immigrants. The new order goes into effect in ten days.

In official statements regarding the first order, the White House insisted that the ban was not a ban, and especially that it was not a Muslim ban—though the text of the January order named only Muslim-majority nations and allowed for exceptions “when the person is a religious minority in his country of nationality.” These and similar bald self-contradictions elicited comparisons to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and other works of fiction that imagine the coercive power of a fully totalitarian state. Nineteen Eighty-Four currently sits at #22 on Amazon’s bestseller list. Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale is #37; a television series is forthcoming on Hulu. Nineteen Eighty-Four had topped the list following the January order. People are hungry for answers and precedents.

Orwell 1984

cover of the first edition (1949)

In place of the exceptions for religious minorities, section 1.b.iv of the March order defends the January order against charges of religious discrimination and Islamophobia. The language is worth quoting in full:

(iv) Executive Order 13769 did not provide a basis for discriminating for or against members of any particular religion. While that order allowed for prioritization of refugee claims from members of persecuted religious minority groups, that priority applied to refugees from every nation, including those in which Islam is a minority religion, and it applied to minority sects within a religion. That order was not motivated by animus toward any religion, but was instead intended to protect the ability of religious minorities — whoever they are and wherever they reside — to avail themselves of the USRAP in light of their particular challenges and circumstances.

Note that the first executive order named no countries “in which Islam is a minority religion”! Notice, too, how important it is for those who crafted both orders to dispute the (blatantly) hateful motivation of the first order after the fact. Section 1.b.iv exemplifies this administration’s agonistic relationship with the truth. Expect Nineteen Eighty-Four to see another spike in sales.

Reference to dystopian novels is appropriate not so much because Nineteen Eighty-Four predicts Trumpism as because Trump behaves like a caricature, bypassing the details of policy in pursuit of ratings. The immigration executive orders, like other actions taken by Trump in the first months of his presidency, seem motivated by a desire to rile up his base rather than by any informed political program. The settings in which his actions make sense, and to which they are directed, remain the Twitterverse and the well-attended rallies of the faithful.

The idea that the immigration bans make American citizens safer could be charitably described as a fantasy. No national of any of the six (or seven) countries has killed anyone in a terrorist attack in the United States in the past 15 years. Most years, more Americans die at the hands of toddlers with guns than perish by terrorist violence. This includes domestic terrorism, which neither version of “Protecting the Nation” addresses. As often in politics (and fiction), ideology masquerades as policy. The executive orders amount to an emotional indulgence for xenophobic factions on the right. Therein lies their fictional essence. Of course, that is no consolation for those affected by the bans nor their families in the United States and abroad. Fiction is not an escape from reality but a way of experiencing it. Emotional indulgences always seem to come at the price of someone else’s pain.

For the time being, Americans (and the world) may be locked in a Nineteen-Eighty-Four-meets-hotel-commercial storyline. Kellyanne Conway’s phrase “alternative facts” set off alarm bells in January but actually falls short of Trump’s own brand of doublethink. According to Trump, there is no verifiable reality to which his discourse is alternative. “Any negative polls,” he tweeted last month, “are fake news.” Ipso facto, apparently. If the departure from Bush-Clinton-Obama gentility seems sudden, that is to some extent because Americans have spent the previous decades asleep, unable or unwilling to diagnose less well-advertised Orwellian developments. From his predecessors, Trump inherits a vast machinery of immigration laws, drones, and detention centers. He has only to use it.

Looking back beyond 20th-century dystopian fiction can suggest other, more constructive forms of collective political imagination. In 14th-century England, Syria was celebrated as the homeland of the founders of Britain. According to a version of the wildly popular medieval historical narrative known as the Brut, Britain was discovered long before the birth of Christ by 33 Syrian sisters. Their father, the story goes, had married them off to 33 Syrian noblemen, whom they despised. The husbands beat their wives, but “they behaved even worse than before.” Their father, the king of Syria, was ashamed. He sent for his 33 daughters and told them to shape up or “lose his love forever.” The women responded by killing their husbands in the middle of the night, whereupon they were banished from Syria and set sail for Britain. The eldest sister, Albina, gave her name to the new country: Albion.

Folger Ogden 24

Washington, D.C., Folger Shakespeare Library, MS Ogden 24

The Albina legend is one of many origin stories that circulated in medieval England. In an earlier version, the women are said to come from Greece. Later on in the Brut, Britain is founded by the eponymous Brutus of Troy, great-grandson of Aeneas. That Albina and Brutus belong to legend rather than historical fact does nothing to mitigate their power as ideas. By tracing British polities back across the sea to Greek or Syrian nobility and Trojan conquerors, medieval English readers connected their island—situated at the edge of the known world—to cosmopolitan culture. For subjects with something to prove, immigration is not a problem but a necessity.

The medieval English view of Syria was by no means egalitarian, however. After arriving on the island, Albina and her sisters become “wondrous eager” for men, lie with the Devil, and engender a race of giants whom Brutus must later eradicate. Temporal and physical distance from ancient Syria enabled readers of the Brut to project fantastical qualities onto the 33 immigrant sisters. The Albina legend participates in then-current discourses surrounding race, gender, and the East.

At the same time, the story typifies the possibilities of literary imagination before modern nationalism. Scholars of medieval culture disagree about whether it makes sense to speak of ‘nations’ in the Middle Ages. If 14th-century England was a nation, it was a different kind from modern global powers like the United Kingdom and the United States. A monarchy administered by a hypermobile, multilingual elite, late medieval England was, in the words of Derek Pearsall, “part of the continent, and not a very important part” (Old English and Middle English Poetry, p. 85). The political imperative behind the Albina legend was the need to disavow Britain’s geographical and cultural marginality. When Chaucer entered the literary scene in the 1360s, he didn’t assume the cultural superiority of the English language. On the contrary, his provocation consisted in writing haute French and Italian literature, but writing it in English.

Intervening between Chaucer and our current literary/political moment is the idea of the nation in the modern sense, an idea over which much ink has been spilled and for which countless people have died. Most political thought and action since the Enlightenment, from Mandela to Mussolini, has unfolded inside the idea of the nation. Trump’s ascendancy, like the result of the Brexit referendum in the UK, represents a rejection of late-century globalization and nostalgia for a nationalistic status quo. “Protect the Nation” is “Make America Great Again” and “America First” translated into an executive order. It is the arbitrary exercise of spiteful isolationism. Either version of the document could be fiction, if their effects on thousands of innocent lives were not so palpable. The protests at airports and across the country in January had a symbolic flavor, as protests tend to do. There were allusions to Lady Liberty, Voldemort, Mordor, and Orwell. The symbolism of literary fantasy, empty as it often must be, made a strangely appropriate response to such a destructive empty gesture. Expect more of the same this week.

Trump’s campaign platform named real problems in America—income inequality, the entrenchment of a political class, the centralization of cultural power, terrorism—but proposed to solve them with the fantasy of a nation that becomes an island unto itself. Hence the resonance with the hypernationalized future landscapes of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale. Hence the Hulu series, whose viewers will presumably investigate their authoritarian reality by entering a yet more authoritarian fictional world. Medieval literature serves as a reminder that the political imaginary can exist beyond the traps and clichés of closed borders.