Belmont Club

The American Reboot

A specter is haunting politics. Barbara Streisand told the Hollywood Reporter “‘this can’t be happening,’ … in disbelief about the ascendant candidacy of Republican primary front-runner Donald Trump.” The same goes for Mark Zuckerberg who received a Facebook “friend” from Recep Erdogan.

Erdogan, who once threatened to ban Facebook in his country, used his official page on the website to respond to Zuckerberg both in Turkish and in English.

“I highly value Mark Zuckerberg’s message for pointing out the profound difference between Islam and terrorism since these two concepts are often mentioned in the same breath these days,” he wrote. …

The supportive message came just days after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump caused international outrage by demanding a ban on Muslims traveling to the United States.

But it’s not just them. Scott Walker “has renewed his call to Republican presidential candidates to drop out of the race in the hopes that a smaller field will weaken GOP front-runner Donald Trump’s plurality of votes”, as if only political suicide by rival Republicans can stop the Donald now.

The Wisconsin governor on Tuesday was critical of Trump’s latest proposal for a “total and complete shutdown” of all Muslims entering the country until elected leaders can “figure out what’s going on.”

“When we look at the very real concerns we have in the world when it comes to safety,” Walker said, “our focus should be on ensuring the people coming into this country are safe, and it shouldn’t be on what religion they are.”

There’s no denying something’s got the GOP frontrunners spooked. “Speaking to a small crowd at a New York City fundraiser, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) questioned whether Donald Trump has the “judgment” to be commander in chief and said that he would not be comfortable with Trump having his ‘finger on the button.’”

Nor is it only the headline great who are perturbed.  Across the Internet the Trump proposal to temporarily halt in Muslim immigration has divided opinion groups that were heretofore living in a happy anti-Obama consensus. What’s happening?

What’s happening is that Gessler’s Hat has been knocked off the pole. For those who don’t know the story, the rebellion against the Habsburgs by what became Switzerland started when a certain William Tell refused to bow to Gessler’s headgear, which was placed on a pole in the market square of Altdorf.  It was only a seemingly little incident but it turned into a big deal.

No one could know it, certainly not Gessler and perhaps not even William Tell, but that act of symbolic defiance touched off a series of unpredictable events whose consequences echo to this day, 800 years later. A very similar thing is unfolding today. Trump has forced politics to squarely face the taboo. That act has caused a cascade which is releasing a lot of pent-up energy.

The important thing to remember about rebellions, even small ones, is that everyone who thinks they can control the forces unleashed — can’t. That goes for Obama and that goes for Trump. A friend who was a veteran of the Anbar Surge wrote that democracy was scary and to calm himself down he repeated to himself Winston Churchill’s soothing words: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Democracy’s default assumption is it will be alright; we will do the right thing, thread the needle, that it will work out. Probably. But we believe this more from faith than reason, for in these situations there’s an element of risk, because the normal flight controls lose their authority and the political airplane goes into a spin until it starts flying itself again — if it ever does — in a direction yet to be determined.

Andrew McCarthy, who prosecuted the defendants in the First World Trade Center bombing understands that a Pandora’ Box once opened cannot be shut. So he tries, like an intellectual pilot, to the move the stick around to see if it will respond to “right” or “left”, reason or unreason.   McCarthy’s ideas were picked up by Mark KrIkorian’s  whose framework of ideological exclusion is substantially similar. McCarthy gives a clear exposition of the problems caused by a religion that is also a potentially totalitarian ideology.

Since we want to both honor religious liberty and preserve the Constitution that enshrines and protects it, we have a dilemma.

The assumption that is central to this dilemma — the one that Trump has stumbled on and that Washington refuses to examine — is that Islam is merely a religion. If that’s true, then it is likely that religious liberty will trump constitutional and national-security concerns. How, after all, can a mere religion be a threat to a constitutional system dedicated to religious liberty?

But Islam is no mere religion. …

Our constitutional principle of religious liberty is derived from the Western concept that the spiritual realm should be separate from civic and political life. The concept flows from the New Testament injunction to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. …

The lack of separation between spiritual and civic life is not the only problem with Islam. Sharia is counter-constitutional in its most basic elements — beginning with the elementary belief that people do not have a right to govern themselves freely. Islam, instead, requires adherence to sharia and rejection of all law that contradicts it. So we start with fundamental incompatibility, before we ever get to other aspects of sharia: its systematic discrimination against non-Muslims and women; its denial of religious liberty, free speech, economic freedom, privacy rights, due process, and protection from cruel and unusual punishments; and its endorsement of violent jihad in furtherance of protecting and expanding the territory it governs.

So why isn’t that the end of the matter? Why is Trump being vilified? Why isn’t he being hailed for speaking truth and refusing to bow to political correctness?

Because Islam is more complex in practice than in theory.

“Because Islam is more complex in practice than in theory”. McCarthy’s qualification is of course is the rub. Rebellions, when they occur,  are chaotic events constrained by a childishly simple formula: who’s side are you on? What uniform are you wearing? This simple test creates as much of the turbulence as it does lift.

History suggests that while the partisanship test is in force there very little room for nuance in rebellions. Instead it is mechanical and pitiless, because Gessler’s Hat events create a gross aggregation in which individual discretion, understanding, pity and discernment cannot survive.  As Rick put it, “it it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”  There are only goodbyes, leavened by a little hope, in Casablanca. Nuance there is none.

Rebellions often start in an attempt to recapture an old world.  In truth every cataclysm worth the name washes away more than we bargain for and takes us on roads we never suspected.

We are probably not there yet, but a few more tight turns, a bit more G, a little more inattention from the incompetent pilot and we may be ready to depart. For the moment there’s still airflow, there is yet some lift from the wings. But we have been warned. We either make our choices in good time or find that we have none left.

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