I lived in Turkey for about the decade that coincided with the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP movement. During that time, a friend pointed out to me that it had become common among a certain class of Turkish intellectuals to make claims about history—including fairly recent history—that were not just incorrect but obviously incorrect. Such claims included, for example, “When we were growing up, we’d never even heard of the Kurds”—a point sometimes made in support of the theory that under Erdogan’s AKP the existence of Kurds had at least, finally, become a subject open for discussion.
There were many odd claims like this, but the claims themselves are not the point; the point is that suddenly and strangely a host of new “memories” of things that had never happened displaced memories of things that had. This friend of mine knew well that such claims were incorrect, and could easily be shown to be incorrect. A Google or a YouTube search sufficed to show, for example, a prominent Turkish politician talking about the Kurds in the 1970s, a kindred newspaper headline from the 1980s, and so on in vast multiples. The people reciting these claims were old enough to have lived through the events in question, none of which seemed to make the slightest difference. No one was under any compulsion to fantasize about the past—that was clear enough. Yet mouthing whoppers of falsity had nevertheless become fashionable, and what was also clear is that cynicism played little to no role in all this: People actually believed the nonsense they were hearing and saying.
The wild historic revisionism at large in the Turkish public at the time struck me as meaningful but puzzling. I couldn’t figure out exactly where it came from or what it meant. Once I noticed it, of course, the normal workings of the evoked set enabled me to see more and more examples, so naturally I found the situation stranger and stranger.
I did not fully realize at the time that what was going on in Turkey had gone on in other places over long skeins of time. You can see a vivid example, laid out in a masterfully skillful museum exhibition setting, at the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rallying Grounds (Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände) in Nuremberg, Germany—where precisely the same sort of thing happened in the mid-1930s. When you ponder the phenomenon, you might think of the process of fossilization, where organic material is replaced one molecule at a time by minerals and stone until, finally, the shape is preserved in every detail but the material itself is totally transformed. Except in politics and society, the process often proceeds much, much faster.
Social science understands at least a little something about how such things happen. It probably behooves us to pay attention to this understanding now, because I detect the same thing going on in the United States.
Take, for example, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s recent, strange claim in the Washington Post that Margaret Thatcher is “the real model” for Donald Trump’s presidency. He made this case, in part, by appeal to my book, There is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters. That gives me the right to choose this example and dwell on it a bit.
I was glad to see my largely forgotten book mentioned, but at the same time I was baffled—because the comparison is ludicrous. Readers who doubt this may consult the online Thatcher archives, which contain every known statement made by Margaret Thatcher between 1945 and 1990; or take my word for it for $12.10 on Amazon. They will find nothing to suggest that Thatcher and Trump are similar in any relevant aspect, be it their political ideals, beliefs, moral values, temperament, style, experience, intellect, competence, decorum, or probity.
What does it mean, then, when a respected senior American politician makes this argument in a respected American newspaper? We’re not, after all, talking about an archaic figure known to us only through a disputed Delphic verse. Margaret Thatcher is very nearly a contemporary. She died in 2013. What she believed is as well known as the formula for the area of a triangle. It would be one thing if the newly Trumpesque Gingrich had in his article renounced Margaret Thatcher and her ideals. That would have been surprising, to be sure, but it would have at least made sense. But this is not what he did: He instead made his actual memories of Thatcher vanish in an act of mental thaumaturgy, and returned from his underground dungeon lair with a shape-changed new version of history.
Gingrich wrote that “Trump’s inaugural address had the directness and confrontational tone of a Thatcher speech.” Trump’s speech did have a direct and confrontational tone. But having read some 8,000 of Margaret Thatcher’s speeches, interviews, and writings, I can say with firmness that it did not have the direct and confrontational tone of a Thatcher speech. Gingrich has confused incidental aspects of Thatcher’s tone with essential ones.
Thatcher’s tone, among other things, tended to be appropriate to the occasion. This, for example, was the speech she gave at the analogous moment, upon becoming Prime Minister:
Her Majesty The Queen has asked me to form a new administration and I have accepted. It is, of course, the greatest honour that can come to any citizen in a democracy. I know full well the responsibilities that await me as I enter the door of No. 10 and I’ll strive unceasingly to try to fulfil the trust and confidence that the British people have placed in me and the things in which I believe.
And I would just like to remember some words of St. Francis of Assisi which I think are really just particularly apt at the moment. “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
And to all the British people—howsoever they voted—may I say this. Now that the Election is over, may we get together and strive to serve and strengthen the country of which we’re so proud to be a part.
Her tone was conciliatory (which it often wasn’t, to be sure), and it reflected, as it often did, her austere Methodist upbringing. Note the stress she placed on the themes of work, obligation, and duty, using such words as strive, try, responsibilities, serve.
Her reference to the “trust and confidence” placed in her by the British people and her appeal to “the things in which I believe” were also characteristic of her tone. “I am not a consensus politician,” she said a few months before her election, “I am a conviction politician.” Her convictions included the belief that markets, not governments, should be the agents of social choice and change.
This belief was of a part with her Christianity. She was deeply religious, and relied throughout her political career upon the moral teachings of her upbringing, in which her lay preacher father stressed personal responsibility, doctrinal liberalism, intellectualism, and ecumenism. These beliefs, not confrontation for its own sake, shaped the tone of Thatcher’s speeches. Moreover—and more importantly—they shaped the tone of her life. Gingrich might remember from my book that Thatcher donated her personal papers and diaries to the public while she was still alive:
Lady Thatcher was under no obligation to give her personal papers to anyone. Indeed, she could have sold them to the highest bidder or burnt them had she thought it prudent. She instead donated them to the British people. This is proof of the depth of her commitment to the ideal of an open society, not to mention an extraordinary testimony to her confidence in her own character. You do not hand over to historians and journalists 3,000 boxes of papers, many of which you have not seen since the day they crossed your desk, if you are not certain that you have always conducted yourself with irreproachable integrity. Think about it: Would you?
Would Donald Trump, who won’t even open up his tax returns? The idea is risible.
Gingrich called Trump’s tone “direct.” Is it? Is it ever? Margaret Thatcher’s speaking style certainly was; one always knew from what she said what she meant. Trump’s speechwriters took pains on his Inauguration to ensure, for a change, that he spoke in complete English sentences; but the change was so abrupt that Trump had serious difficulty delivering those sentences. Besides, his tone was not so much “direct” as it was weird, angry, ghoulish, and atrabilious. It will be remembered for such phrases as “scattered like tombstones,” “carnage,” “ravages,” “depletion,” “ripped from their homes,” “disrepair and decay,” “destroying,” and “eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”
Gingrich wrote: “Trump’s speech was not designed to reconcile with the Washington power structure.” Since he does not define the “Washington power structure,” the observation is empty, but I agree that it was not designed to reconcile Trump with anything or anyone in need of reconciliation—including the majority of the American public and the other nations of this earth, be they friend or foe. “Direct,” after all, is not a synonym for divisive.
Now consider the content, as opposed to the tone, of Trump’s speech. It was built around the phrase “America First,” which he repeated for emphasis as “only America First.” When Trump first used that slogan, his defenders were forced to insist that he was stupid, not malign: He just didn’t know this was the slogan of the isolationist America First Committee.
In the most charitable interpretation, therefore, Trump’s use of that slogan indicates that he is unfamiliar with the history of the United States during the interwar years and World War II. We can’t reproach him for forgetting their lessons if he never knew them in the first place, but we could ask how a mind so virginal would be able to understand, much less wisely discharge, the awesome responsibilities of the office he now holds. Many of his weirder comments do make sense, though, if we assume that Trump literally knows nothing about history. (“Two Corinthians, right? Two Corinthians” . . . “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job, that is being recognized more and more, I notice.”)
But a less charitable interpretation is plausible, too: Perhaps he’s well familiar with the provenance of the slogan and its significance, and finds both to his liking. We naturally resist this thought because the idea of an U.S. President who models himself not on Thatcher, but on the anti-Semitic Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh is too frightening to confront. So we tell ourselves that it’s impossible, we are reading too much into things, surely he doesn’t mean it that way.
But once you permit yourself to think that the allusion might be intentional—whether the intention is mainly Trump’s or mainly Steve Bannon’s—it’s impossible to avoid hearing the other associations to which the speech gives rise. The verbal triptych—“one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny”—bids you play the game for yourself:1
Pat: This is our final player, Dawn Trump! Dawn’s decided to play for this beautiful, self-defrosting, double-door refrigerator-freezer, a welcomed addition to any home. One heart, one home, and one glorious destiny! One heart, one home, and one glorious destiny …
Dawn: Stop the Wheel! Can I solve?
Dawn: Ein Volk, Ein Reich…
Did you get there before Dawn? Bet you did.
Then soon came the words “total allegiance,” calling to mind the Totalstaat. The mindless obedience to state power suggested by that phrase is repugnantly un-American, yet there it was.
The alternative to hearing the allusions clearly planted in that speech is believing the Inaugural address of the 45th President of the United States was written on the back of a napkin by children or idiots, with no thought, care, or craft. Say what you will about them, Steve Bannon and Steven Miller are neither children nor idiots. Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. But whichever truth it was, Thatcher wasn’t the model for it.
Now let’s consider Trump more generally. The Inaugural address, Gingrich claims, “represented a direct threat to the value system of the left. In this head-on challenge to power and ideology, Trump resembles Thatcher far more than Reagan.” Gingrich does not specify what he means by “the value system of the left.” Nor does he explain why Trump’s vision of a dirigiste and protectionist state—one in which the chief executive busily dictates the hiring and purchasing decisions of private entities while going on a credit binge to build roads, highways, bridges, airports, tunnels, and railways—would represent a challenge to it. It is a challenge, however, to everything Thatcher believed.
Keep in mind: Until recently, she was viewed as an emblematic politician of the Right. So, for that matter, was Gingrich. That is the key fact in understanding not how but why Thatcher was confrontational and direct. Gingrich does not ask what Thatcher believed, politically, or whether Donald Trump shares these beliefs. Unless Gingrich holds that values and ideals have no meaning at all and only style matters, this likeness—to the tiny extent there is any—is irrelevant.
Gingrich writes that I argue in my book that,
Thatcher had two great historic goals. First, Thatcher was dedicated to destroying the moral legitimacy of socialism. Second, she was determined to break Arthur Scargill and the coal miners’ union, which was the most powerful structure threatening the Parliament’s right to govern.
I didn’t argue that, but it is true that Thatcher believed socialism immoral and Scargill a menace. (Gingrich may be thinking of Thatcher’s famous description of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) as “the enemy within.” But “the enemy without” to which she was referring in that case was Argentina, not socialism….)
Gingrich’s use of Thatcher’s contest with NUM as support for his thesis is maddeningly misleading. The heart of Thatcherite economics was what is now disparagingly called neoliberalism, once laissez-faire economics, and the clash occurred because Thatcher ardently defended it; that is, she defended precisely the opposite set of principles Trump has endorsed. To wit, Thatcher believed the price of coal, traded freely on the global market, should determine its supply. She did not believe the government should intervene to prop up Britain’s dying coal industry, even if this meant unprofitable mines would be shut down, jobs lost, and whole communities and ways of life extinguished.
Scargill, by contrast, believed pits should never be closed, however unprofitable they were, because men relied upon them for their employment and in turn relied upon their employment for their dignity. When asked if there was any amount of loss that would compel him to believe a pit should be closed, he replied that it was incumbent upon the government (and thus the taxpayer) to accept “loss without limit.”
Trump is like Scargill, not Thatcher. He has repeatedly promised to reopen unprofitable coal mines and put miners back to work. The promise entails, by contraposition, the inescapable conclusion that he does not believe that demand for coal, traded freely on the global market, should determine its supply. American coal mines can be re-opened only if Trump is willing to do what Thatcher was not: either use the full force of government to coerce taxpayers into subsidizing mine-working as a form of welfare, or, wildly less likely, to reverse the global economic trends that have led to the collapse of the price of coal. Either option would entail government intervention in the market. Such intervention is roughly what Thatcher termed “socialism.” And it is true, as Gingrich writes, that “Thatcher was dedicated to destroying the moral legitimacy of socialism.” But this means that she was dedicated to destroying ideas like Trump’s. “Protection” in Thatcher’s view, did not lead to “great prosperity and strength,” as Trump has promised, but to ruin. Trump is on the opposite side of the argument Thatcher spent her whole life making.
Just one more substantive point, if I may. In passing, Gingrich concedes that Reagan and Trump differ profoundly as to political goals. Reagan, he says, “was focused on breaking the power of the Soviet Union, not breaking the power of political correctness and the elite media.” Reagan’s enemy was the Evil Empire, with its gulags and famines. Trump’s enemy, defined by his professed adolescent Randian enthrallment, is benevolently minded Americans and their stubbornly fact-clinging media. “Prime Minister Thatcher would have approved,” Mr. Gingrich concludes.
No, she would not have. She would have seen in Trump’s Inaugural address an alarming sign of American senescence and moral illiteracy. Margaret Thatcher searched unflaggingly for truth, and labored to deploy truth in the service of just and effective government. Donald Trump takes an unvaryingly instrumental attitude toward truth: “Truth” becomes whatever serves his ego and, by extension, his interests. As Bret Stephens put it recently,
If you can sell condos by claiming your building is 90% occupied when it’s only 20% occupied, well, then—it’s 90% occupied. If you can convince a sufficient number of people that you really did win the popular vote, or that your inauguration crowds were the biggest—well then, what do the statistical data and aerial photographs matter?
In other words, “truth is what you can get away with.”
Something very similar, I fear, is what Newt Gingrich thought he could get away with by impressing Margaret Thatcher’s achievements into service for Donald Trump.
I live in Paris now. I have not been back to the United States since the election. But even from across the pond I can see that claims of the Gingrich kind seem to be multiplying, especially among Republicans. The editor of The American Interest made a prediction less than 24 hours after the election:
[T]he internal polarization of the party will dissipate much faster than many suppose, and it will do so despite the poor leadership and pervasive hollowness that have characterized the party in recent years. That is because Trump’s . . . coattails were positive, not negative, as so many suspected they would be, and healing is easier when you are a winner with patronage and power to dispense—power defined in this case as the trifecta of control over the White House, the Senate, and the House, not to speak of more state houses and, prospectively, the Supreme Court. We will be shocked, no doubt, at how short and fuzzy a lot of memories will get in a hurry.2
It’s coming true before our very eyes. A strikingly large number of people, not a few of them Republican Congressmen, who used to hold principled conservative views are now jettisoning those views as if they had never existed. Something strange is happening, at least among some people, to the American collective national memory. Things that should be there, memories of things we all lived through, or that our parents or our grandparents lived through, seem suddenly to be distorted or nonexistent, as if we’ve suffered some kind of collective stroke.
These claims are very different from politicians’ usual lies and dissimulation in that they require the listener to forget things that they themselves recently experienced. It represents, perhaps, a species of what Orwell called Doublethink: the power to hold contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accept both of them; the ability as necessary to say and believe that black is white—that, for example, “protectionism” is a hoary Hayek-approved conservative principle—and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.
Whether this kind of collective amnesia is specific to a particular political moment, as it was in earlier times in Turkey, Germany, and many other places, is an interesting question. What is not in question is that it is frightening, because it is definitely not sane.
1Here is the exact text: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now. We are one nation—and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams; and their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.”
2Adam Garfinkle, “What Just Happened?” TAI Online, November 9, 2016.