Friday, September 2, 2022

Joe Did What? Annals of Rhetoric


I guess this is Stephen Miller... 

("slowly but passionately" is classic Miller, with its literary sound unmatched by any actual meaning, and so is the grammatical bear trap of "as powerfully as mere words can get"—get powerfully what?—where the cliché according to which words are "mere" distracts the reader with wondering what other kind of object means things better than words do)

... but it's taking off all over MAGA Twitter, generally in a form like "that's all it means, and if you object to that you must be a communist," which begs the question of what "again" means, and what it's doing in the phrase, with its implication that America stopped being great at some point and the greatness needs to be restored, but that's really a kind of dumb argument in any case. I don't see how there can be some adequate empirical definition of national greatness that you could apply to measure how American moved in and out of greatness the way you can measure how it moves in and out of, say, economic recession, and I don't see the point of arguing about it if we can't even know what it means.

A more useful retort, I thought, might be to say that "woke" just means having one's eyes opened, and why are you so insistent on keeping them closed? Maybe there's a begged question there as well—opened to what?—but the answer to that is easy: opened to injustice. If you disagree with that, if you think we should all just sleep through injustice, then you're weird, in my opinion.

But rhetorical expressions like "woke" never just denote something, they're used for a connotative power. "Woke" uses a Black English Vernacular verb form in defiance of the Standard "awakened", and that defiance looks like a threat against those who benefit from the injustice: once you're woke, you might start trying to change things. "Make America great again" is similar, and even related: it encodes the parallel threat against those who make America un-great, presumably the social justice warriors ("social justice warrior" just means people who fight against social injustice, and again, how is that a bad thing?) whose work the Trumpies intend to undo.

But I was actually thinking—in fact just a little before President Biden's speech last night—of "America First":

That's really something, isn't it? Biden creates an uproar by using the term "semi-fascism" and Monica Crowley, the Trump media star who famously thought the Berlin Wall was an example of how "walls work", admiringly brings up the semi-fascist Charles Lindbergh and his pro-Nazi slogan.

Actually she didn't, or didn't know she did. It's Trump's expression too, and it just means you put your country first, as do all patriots, whichever country they have in mind. But the neo-Buchananian isolationism it encodes (alliances are bad, and war is bad unless you wage it so as to make a profit—"keep the oil") isn't a novelty, and it does go back, pretty precisely, to Lindbergh, the anti-Semite celebrity and fan of the German military who founded the America First Committee in early 1940, about whom President Roosevelt privately used language very similar to what Biden has been publicly using about Trump and his closest followers—

"I am absolutely convinced that Lindbergh is a Nazi," FDR said melodramatically to his secretary of the treasury and old Dutchess County neighbor and friend, Henry Morgenthau, in May 1940, two days after Lindbergh's May 19 speech. "If I should die tomorrow, I want you to know this."

Lindbergh had a real influence among some Republicans in Congress and the press, as showed itself when Roosevelt first proposed the Lend-Lease program at the end of the year, as Jeffrey Engel recalls:

Having already secured revision of the constraining post–World War I neutrality laws, and the first peacetime draft in the nation’s history, in late December 1940 he proposed further new avenues for arming Washington’s allies without direct congressional oversight. Congress would appropriate the funds for this new program, dubbed “Lend-Lease,” Roosevelt explained, and he would then, in the words of the ensuing legislation, transfer munitions and supplies “to the government of any country whose defense the president deems vital to the defense of the United States.” Just put the money in my account, he effectively argued, and I’ll take care of the rest.

Critics howled in response. Such sweeping powers were never contemplated by the nation’s founders and were nowhere to be found in the Constitution, Senator Robert Taft railed. They would allow Roosevelt, or any president, “to carry on a kind of undeclared war all over the world” and seemed to confirm their worst fears of Roosevelt’s dictatorial aspirations. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorialized a blunt conclusion: “Mr. Roosevelt today committed an act of war. He also became America’s first dictator.”

Guess who opposed Biden's lend-lease program for Ukraine, by the way—not a lot of people, but a pretty specific crowd:

GOP Reps. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Dan Bishop (N.C.), Warren Davidson (Ohio), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Paul Gosar (Ariz.), Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), Thomas Massie (Ky.), Ralph Norman (S.C.), Scott Perry (Pa.) and Tom Tiffany (Wis.) voted against the bill, and Reps. Rick Allen (Ga.), Troy Nehls (Texas) and Chris Stewart (Utah) did not vote on it at all.

What I'm thinking here is that the job Biden was doing in his speech last night is very similar to the job Roosevelt did with the famous "Four Freedoms" peroration of his State of the Union address on January 6, 1941, when he called not for war but rather for disarmament:
The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.
It's preparing a kind of off-ramp for Republican office holders who would want to remain with their craziest constituents, as they understand them at the moment, but won't want to brand themselves with Vladimir Putin if it comes to that, as Taft didn't want to brand himself with Hitler, or, more to the present point, with the extra-constitutional mischief of January 6 and the White House sensitive document theft, the crimes most of them really didn't have anything to do with (except for quiet acquiescence), as the danger of these things, and their connection to what the DNI calls "domestic violent extremists", becomes clearer and clearer
DVEs motivated by a range of ideologies that are not connected to or inspired by jihadi terrorist organizations like al-Qa‘ida and ISIS pose an elevated threat to the United States. This diverse set of extremists reflects an increasingly complex threat landscape, including racially or ethnically motivated threats and antigovernment or antiauthority threats. Of these, violent extremists who espouse an often overlapping mix of white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and exclusionary cultural-nationalist beliefs have the most persistent transnational connections via often loose online communities to like-minded individuals and groups in the West. The threat from this diffuse movement has ebbed and flowed for decades but has increased since 2015. 
  • Violent extremists who promote the superiority of the white race have been responsible for at least 26 lethal attacks that killed more than 141 people and for dozens of disrupted plots in the West since 2015. While these extremists often see themselves as part of a broader global movement, most attacks have been carried out by individuals or small, independent cells.
  • Australia, Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom consider white racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, including Neo-Nazi groups, to be the fastest growing terrorist threat they face.
  • Both these and other DVEs, such as antigovernment or antiauthority extremists, are motivated and inspired by a mix of ideological, sociopolitical, and personal grievances against their targets, which have increasingly included large public gatherings, houses of worship, law enforcement and government facilities, and retail locations. Lone actors, who by definition are not likely to conspire with others regarding their plans, are increasingly choosing soft, familiar targets for their attacks, limiting law enforcement opportunities for detection and disruption.

As Biden said, accusing Trump by name,

there is no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans, and that is a threat to this country.
These are hard things. 
But I’m an American President — not the President of red America or blue America, but of all America.
And I believe it is my duty — my duty to level with you, to tell the truth no matter how difficult, no matter how painful.

And here, in my view, is what is true: MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution.  They do not believe in the rule of law.  They do not recognize the will of the people. 

It's a very difficult rhetorical trick to pull off, but the thing is that the situation he's talking about is real, and that eventually has to make a difference.

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