Robert Wright On The Ukraine Crisis
Thinking through the war's latest developments.
Bob is a journalist, public intellectual, and the author of many books, including The Moral Animal, Nonzero, The Evolution of God, and Why Buddhism Is True. He’s written for countless magazines, including The New Republic, where he co-wrote the TRB column with Mickey Kaus. He and Mickey also co-founded Bloggingheads TV, and the two regularly converse on The Wright Show and The Parrot Room. He also has his own Substack, the Nonzero Newsletter.
Bob is quite simply brilliant, and his books have been very influential in the development of my own thinking. Empirical but spiritual, he’s one of a kind.
You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or click the dropdown menu to add the Dishcast to your podcast feed). For two clips of my convo with Bob — on what could possibly stop Putin now, and on the danger of humiliating a country — head over to our YouTube page.
New transcript just dropped: my convo with Jonathan Haidt over the damage wrought by social media over the past decade. A primer:
A listener gives “thanks for producing an interesting, thought-provoking podcast” — then dissents:
There was much interesting material in your interview last week with Francis Fukuyama, but there was one major source of disappointment and irritation: your misrepresentation of the ideas of Michel Foucault.
Blame Foucault for what you want, but at least try to represent his work truthfully. Contrary to what you asserted, there is no theory of conspiracy in Foucault. On the contrary, he sought to explain that power is exercised in society much less by domination by a few than by influence through diffuse means. He documented how mechanisms of power emerge over time to establish social order in the face of changing economic, social and cultural conditions.
In fact, Foucault sought to answer the question you asked at the end of your interview: if we’re all autonomous, how do we create community? What is it, Foucault asked, that brings order to society at different times, that makes us behave and think in tune with each other, that makes us behave in socially compatible ways, that makes us see ourselves as part of society, and how do we deal with those who seem to deviate from prescribed ways of being and acting?
There’s no conspiracy there. There is the steady construction, by numerous people looking to make life more manageable, more productive, etc., of intellectual, institutional and practical means of bringing some order to things and of getting individuals to internalize that order.
Here’s a clip from the Fukuyama episode that’s getting a lot of views:
Next, a long dissent over last week’s column, “Can A Cult Become A Movement?”:
You wrote: “A figure who could mimic Trump’s broader fuck-it-all style, and focus on substantive policy more than Trump does, and have a record of actually getting shit done, could conceivably co-opt the Trump populism without the Trump baggage.”
You must be joking. How do you propose for Trump’s successor to “mimic Trump’s broader fuck-it-all style” — the “it” apparently including democratic norms, the U.S. Constitution, and America’s 200-plus-year tradition of peaceful transitions of power? Trump doesn’t have “baggage.” Not telling your fiancée that you’ve fathered a child during a drunken one-night stand is “baggage.” What Trump has is a proven willingness to burn everything to the ground rather than do the right thing when said right thing involves any damage to his ego.
And here’s the kicker: Trump would not have been able to do what he did had it not been for the approval of the GOP.
You seem to believe that Trump is the problem, and as soon as he goes away, we can all get back to normal and pretend the Trump presidency never happened. Sorry to shout in all caps, but this is really freaking important: TRUMP IS NOT THE PROBLEM. TRUMP IS A SYMPTOM.
Trump is a symptom of a political party that (with very, very few honorable exceptions) wants to grab onto power and hold onto it, ethics be damned. They stood by while Trump spread vicious lies, tried to pressure a secretary of state into altering vote counts, incited a riot (complete with chants of “Hang Mike Pence”), and continues to act like a victim who has been wrongfully deprived of his throne. Had some combination of his cabinet members and GOP congresspeople told him, “Shut up, you clown, what you’re doing is wrong,” January 6 would not have happened.
As Bill Maher said on his show, “It’s time to admit that the Republicans don’t just hate the Democrats; they hate democracy. They hate the player and the game!”
And you want them back in the White House? Because Biden is old and decrepit and something about trans children and CRT and inflation? I’m sorry to say it, but you sound like Trump apologists back in 2016: “Yes, Trump did some bad things, but Hillary’s emails! And Benghazi!11!!!11”
As for the Democrats, I highly recommend this piece by your fellow Substacker Freddie de Boer. To summarize: Democrats suffer from a “worst of both worlds” scenario. On Twitter and in the media, they are the woke fanatics who want to cancel you for using the wrong pronoun and to teach your children that all cis-het white Americans are the Antichrist. In Congress, they are a coalition of woke activists, centrists, and everyone in between, forced to plead with Romney, Collins, and Manchinema to get anything done. The former is more conspicuous than the latter, and so the average voter gets a mental image of Democrats as crazy extremists, while actual progressives are tearing their hair out in frustration with not being able to save the climate and implement universal childcare.
Also, I am well and truly flabbergasted by your juxtaposition of “How awful that innocent children have been murdered with a gun! We must do something about the easy availability of guns in our country!” with “Wouldn’t it be swell if Governor DeSantis [who received an A rating from the NRA] became our President in 2024!”
Face, meet palm; head, meet desk.
Mr. Sullivan, I know you’re a conservative, and I don’t expect you to be happy about the Democrats’ positions on taxes and abortion and whatnot. But please, for the love of all that is holy, do not let that blind you to the danger that the GOP represents. To answer the question in your headline — Can A Cult Become A Movement? — no. No, it cannot. Not if you want America to remain a democracy.
As any longtime reader will know, I have no brief for the GOP. I’ve been harshly criticizing it for decades. I would vote for any Democrat rather than Trump, who remains a profound threat to what’s left of liberal democracy. And even if you think Trump represents the real GOP, I don’t think you can argue that his personal vileness, demagogic genius, and insatiable narcissism didn’t also make a difference.
And the fact is: we have two parties, the Democrats have completely bungled their opportunity to recapture a vacated center, and I profoundly oppose their ever-leftward social authoritarianism.
As for my reader’s defense of the Biden Dems, it’s no defense. The president knew how slim his Congressional majority was, and instead of working from the center out, as he promised, proposed the biggest spending package in decades, has echoed every extreme left position, from abortion to race to immigration to sex changes for children, misjudged the economy by funneling more borrowed money into an overheated economy with supply restraints, and committed the US to a long war of attrition in Europe which Russia believes it cannot lose.
There is no one I can see who can replace him who isn’t even further to his left. I voted for Biden, a moderate. I got a woke extremist who cannot command the country’s attention and clearly hasn’t a clue what’s going on in the country. Do you think he understands why and how he may be pushing more Latinos into the GOP camp? I don’t.
Pragmatically speaking, in other words, I’m pretty sure the Dems have handed the country over to the GOP for the foreseeable future, and so I’m trying to see how that can somehow save us from a second Trump term. At this point, that’s my main hope. I’m not happy — but DeSantis could be the least awful option in that context. Do you want Biden to run for a second term? It would be “Weekend at Bernie’s,” but not funny.
Another reader recommends a book:
I was reading your “Rumblings of Rome” piece and couldn’t stop thinking about How Democracies Die by Levitsky and Ziblatt. According to them, democracies are based on a series of unwritten norms of political restraint followed by all the players. They call this “institutional forbearance” and consider it one of the two pillars of a healthy democracy. (The other is “mutual tolerance.”) Money quote:
Forbearance means “patient self-control; restraint and tolerance,” or “the action of restraining from exercising a legal right.” For our purposes, institutional forbearance can be thought of as avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit. Where norms of forbearance are strong, politicians do not use their institutional prerogatives to the hilt, even if it is technically legal to do so, for such action could imperil the existing system.
According to the authors, institutional forbearance legitimizes democracy and keeps it going, but once the players start violating the norms, things fall apart. It’s an awesome book and I recommend it to everyone.
It is also happening right here right now. It’s a textbook case of the extinction of liberal democracy. Trump was and is incapable of functioning in such a system, and he made everything far far worse. But the Democrats’ response — to shift drastically to the left and to assault our entire system as illegitimate because it doesn’t reflect majority rule in every respect — has made things worse. The response of the Dems to the GOP view that the system is rigged is to argue that the system is rigged in another way — by white supremacy. Both parties are now run by their extremes which do not believe in the rules more than they believe in their agenda. And Biden’s decision to move far to the left of Obama — when he was elected to do the opposite — has told voters like me that voting Democrat means enabling the far left’s seizure of government as well as every other major institution and corporation.
Another reader has a truce proposal for the culture wars:
I have always voted for Dems because I’m pro-choice. Right now, I’d vote for someone sane who says, “How about we ban assault weapons in exchange for no abortions after 16 weeks?” I’d be in favor of that — with a heavy heart, since it entails giving up a huge chunk of liberty for women. But it might mean less death all around. Everyone loses something and gains something.
But who am I kidding? Not going to happen in our lifetimes.
Nope. That kind of horse-trading — like building a border wall in return for amnesty — is only accomplished by a liberal democracy. And that’s now extinct in this country.