STITCH BY STITCH: A BOOK
Claire Berlinski, a historian by training, has been a foreign correspondent for thirty years. In Stitch by Stitch, she places the breaking news that flashes and flickers incessantly over our cellphone screens in a wider historical and global context. This context is often absent from our discussion of the news, but without it, we cannot make sense of it.
From this context we can see that events that seem to us new are not. They recapitulate distinct, recurrent patterns, and from these patterns we can discern, step by step, what is likely to happen to us next.
What many Americans see as a uniquely American crisis is no such thing. Since the end of the Cold War, liberal democracy has come under threat the world around. It is now in particular danger—and in some places dead—in Europe. The rise of antiliberal political movements and regimes in Europe is a more direct threat to Americans than they realize, and it is closely connected to their own recent political experiences. Europe’s past and its recent history suggest lessons to Americans who are struggling to respond intelligently to Trumpism.
Stich by Stich argues that threat to liberal democracy comes in the form of a distinct, rival ideology that is at once historically familiar and genuinely novel: the New Caesarism, or illiberal democracy—a hollow form of democracy that spreads mimetically and consolidates itself through the new technologies of the 21st century. When American pundits and journalists call the Trump presidency “unprecedented,” they do their audience a disservice. There are countless recent precedents abroad, and they are often eerily similar. The idea that our experience has no precedent and no analogue is bound up in a particular notion of American exceptionalism, one that has persuaded us we exist outside of time, history, and the world—an idea that is not only wrong, but harmful. It deprives us of the ability to learn from the experience of other countries and from historical evidence that is not only abundant, but relevant to us.
The author is intimately familiar with the recent precedents she describes. She has lived through every stage of the new Caesarism: She watched it arrive in Turkey, where she spent a decade reporting on the rise and consolidation of the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Millions of others have lived through a similar chain of events in in a long list of countries from Hungary to the Philippines. Most importantly, they have lived through them in Russia. Russia is the pioneer, and the chief global exporter, of this empty form of democracy, as well as the ideology upon which it rests and its techniques of control.
The new Caesars are learning from each other. Above all, they’ve learned the recipe for creating an illiberal democracy from Vladimir Putin, the ur-Caesar. The steps are distinct and predictable. First, rewrite history. Then foster nostalgia for an authoritarian past. Exploit ethnic, racial, religious, and class divisions. Magnify fear of foreigners and outsiders. Enter Caesar—the voice of the “real people” in their struggle against a nebulous class of “elites.” Conflate entertainment and politics. Create chaos, confusion, and a sense of permanent emergency. Destroy confidence in the idea of objective truth. Humiliate or destroy the people who are better fit to be leaders. Gain control of the media to starve adversaries of access to the public. Discredit what media you cannot control. Reward loyalists with government tenders. Punish the disloyal with punitive taxes and lawsuits. Stack the courts. Jigger the constitution so that opponents have no hope of coming to power through democratic means. Erode critical civil rights and freedoms, stitch by stitch—until elections still happen, but denuded of everything that makes elections meaningful.
If we fail to understand how and why liberal democracy around the world is collapsing, we have scant hope of preserving ours. If we fail to understand why the West, in particular, has come under attack, we have no hope of responding intelligently or organizing ourselves to defend it. Stitch by Stitch shows that Europe—the other half of the West, from which we have been deliberately and systematically alienated—is now the central battlefield in the war for liberal democracy. The crisis in Europe has become so acute that its long postwar peace, the basis of the postwar global order, is under threat.
To survive, illiberal democracies—and Putin’s regime in particular—must undermine liberal democracies. Successful liberal democracies are an inherent threat to these regimes. Their existence refutes the story the Caesars tell their citizens about the world. This is why Russia is working assiduously to discredit liberal democracies and replace them with illiberal regimes sympathetic to the Kremlin. To do this, he must alienate the United States from Europe, and alienate European nations from each other. This is precisely what is happening, putting our security and the world’s at risk.
Claire Berlinski is an essayist, literary critic, novelist, travel writer, and biographer. She brings thirty years of personal experience with the new Caesarism to vivid life, showing readers exactly what it is like to live in the kind of society we are now on the path to becoming. The result is a book that falls under no conventional category: It is a work of scholarship that is informed by her background as a historian and the academic literature about this regime type. But it is also riveting journalism, a memoir, a warning, and a step-by-step guide to escaping the trap.
If you would like to read this book, please contribute: It is, so far, wholely crowdfunded.
... Russia, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, continues to pursue the same geopolitical aims. Either oblivious to, or supportive of, Vladimir Putin’s efforts to discredit NATO and pull apart the EU, Donald Trump has through word and action pursued the same policy-- even though the social, economic, and political disintegration of Europe would be as disastrous for the world today as it would have been then.
Despite the division of the United States into antagonistic partisan tribes who insist they have nothing in common, the rapid retreat of the United States into solipsism and indifference to the world began under Barack Obama, who campaigned on the promise of disengagement with the world and “nation-building at home." He was rewarded by the electorate’s enthusiastic affirmation. Trump’s foreign policy does not represent a repudiation of the Obama Doctrine. It is fundamentally the same philosophy.
Trump has behaved so erratically, however, and has been so overtly hostile to our allies and so sycophantic to our adversaries, as to set American isolationism—and its consequences—on an irreversible course.
Before Trump’s election, American allies had allowed themselves to believe that American foreign policy under Obama was a bizarre experiment, not an inexorable trend, and that the next president would seek to compensate for Obama’s failings, not accelerate them.
But Trump has proven that Obama was no accident. A very sizable constituency of Americans, of both parties, genuinely no longer sees the need for the postwar order America created, and truly believes we maintain our alliances as an act of foolish largesse. There is enough public support for American isolationism that no country, including Israel, can now say, with confidence, that America will be a reliable ally in four years’ time or eight.
Last week, as feared, the President of the United States blew up the NATO summit. He berated our allies for failing to spend more on their defense. He singled out Germany for particular scorn. Nicholas Burns, the former US Ambassador to NATO, implored Americans not to “normalize” this. “He is the first American president since Harry Truman," he said, "to not believe that NATO is central to American national security interests.”
Following this, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election issued an indictment of another 12 Russian intelligence officers. This has not dimmed Trump’s insistence upon meeting Vladimir Putin next week—alone, without advisors—in Helsinki.
The message is unambiguous: As of now, no member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, nor any other American ally, can predicate its long-term defense posture on the assumption of American stability or even rational American self-interest. The constituency of Americans who are willing to vote first for Obama and then for Trump is so big that no responsible European defense establishment can take Article V for granted.
Charles de Gaulle believed the Anglophone world could not, in the long term, be trusted with French security. It led him (nominally) to withdraw France from NATO’s military integrated command and launch an independent nuclear development program. The independent nuclear program was real, but the withdrawal from NATO, not so much — the secret Ailleret-Lemnitzer agreement more or less kept France in NATO anyway.
Now de Gaulle is saying from the grave, *je vous l’ai dit* — I told you so. How could anyone rational argue? Given what is now obvious about the American electorate, other NATO members are obliged seriously to begin considering two options: an independent accommodation with Russia or the acquisition of an independent nuclear deterrent.
It is too early to say whether we will see Rapallo redux or a nuclear-armed Germany, but it is not too early to say both are now imaginable--and either would represent a geostrategic catastrophe.
NATO wasn’t formed as a charity, nor was the EU created, as Trump believes, to “take advantage” of the United States. A world without NATO will be one in which America competes with Russia and Germany for control over the Atlantic and has no control over the new nuclear states that will emerge. Should the European Union further disintegrate, the risk of a new German Sonderweg is only too real.
Either prospect would have predictable consequences: the rest of Europe will revert toward its traditional fearful posture toward Germany and resume its efforts to contain German power. It will be doing so in the wake of the economic calamity that would ensue from the EU’s collapse. We do not have to wonder, theoretically, whether this experiment might go wrong. We know.
Perhaps, optimists say, history will not repeat itself. But perhaps it will—in the atomic age.
The transatlantic alliance has been the heart of the postwar liberal order. But in the past decade, this alliance of free countries with a deep and shared commitment to liberal democracy has been so weakened that a strong gust of Trump’s hot air could well cause it to collapse.
Trump alone is not responsible for this: Illiberal states and actors—particularly Russia, the far-right, the far-left, and a host of Islamist groupings and states—understand perfectly that a united West is the prerequisite for liberal democracy’s survival--and it is, not incidentally, a prerequisite as well for Israel’s survival.
Illiberal states and actors—above all Russia—have embarked upon a systematic campaign to alienate Americans from Europe and European nations from one other. Their efforts have been dismayingly successful, and we are now seeing their fruit. The President of the United States, for reasons no one quite understands, now appears actively trying to disunite the West and the global order that has allowed it to flourish.
Perhaps this is because he has no idea what he’s doing, perhaps it is because he is under Russian control; or perhaps he genuinely wishes to see it collapse. These questions will be debated for centuries by historians.
But for our purposes, it does not matter: The effect is the same.
Chaos is inevitable when a hegemonic power falls into decrepitude. The United States is now that hegemonic power—the Sick Man of the Globe.
After the catastrophe of the World Wars, the slogan “America First” was synonymous with shame. The United States repudiated the doctrine of isolationism, having realized it was a fatal fantasy at incalculable cost.
American statesmen thereafter pursued consistent foreign policy aims: a Europe “whole, free, and at peace,” made possible by United States’ hard and soft power, and in particular, through its construction of NATO and its support for the European Union.
The former, and particularly the critical Article V, placed Europe under a security umbrella underscored by the United States’ overwhelming hard power. In doing so, we ended centuries of competition among European countries militarily to dominate the Continent—a competition that had repeatedly reduced Europe to rubble, each iteration of the conflict more sanguinary than the last. Funds for the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe were conditioned upon Europe’s progress toward uniting to form a single market, with the ultimate goal a United Europe similar to the United States.
We sought to expand the free world—the world of open and prosperous liberal democracies engaged in free trade—through the construction of specific institutions, such the United Nations and the World Bank. This foreign policy doctrine derived from the overwhelmingly obvious lesson of the Second World War: The United States could not flourish without global order, and that order must rest on American power, for no other power capable of providing it met with our trust, and no power that met our trust was capable of providing it. Constructing this order was in our interest, as was sustaining it.
If this was true then, it is true now. Anyone who claims the American-led order is obsolete must answer the question: What exactly has changed? Geography? The rise of a more benevolent hegemon?
(To be continued ... )
In case you missed it, I published this yesterday on Ha'aretz: https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-trump-and-putin-are-pulling-europe-apart-that-means-catastrophe-1.6273473
It wasn't behind a paywall yesterday, but today, it seems to be. So I'll send the text in a separate update. (Ha'aretz would, I'm sure, prefer it if you subscribed. The business model for journalism--or what remains of the business model, and journalism--depends on your doing that.
But you've subscribed to *my* work --- and this draft is longer and more detailed than the one I published -- so I reckon it's okay to send it to you. Still, do please subscribe to the newspapers and magazines that hire me. If the quality of journalism these days makes you want to throw up, there' a good reason for that: The Internet broke the business model for journalism, and newspapers no longer have the money to pay their writers. Most of the good ones have either left for more lucrative professions or for Al Jazeera. That's why you hate the media: There really is no such thing as a free lunch.
(I'll send the article in the next update.)
All Europe needs to do is defund their Global Progressive Agenda worldview from education in K-12, university, law and journalism schools and replace it with Western Enlightenment. This is the sword that cuts the Gordian knot. However Europe won't do this thing. See Jer. 6:16. By the way, the other countries should. That would be Kenya, the USA, the U.K., Canada, Mexico, Japan, Russia... all of them. Will they? (It a fight: Tribal Control vs. Prog Control vs. Tragic Liberty.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrkN5Pqh5ok
Your vision is acute, but oddly distorted. The Trump phenomenon, like the Tea Party before it, is a reaction to the growing Caesarism of American politics, not a cause. Were I, as a long-time libertarian-leaning conservative, to set out to describe the Progressive playbook, I could not better your description: “Conflate entertainment and politics. Create chaos, confusion, and a sense of permanent emergency. Destroy confidence in the idea of objective truth. Humiliate or destroy the people who are better fit to be leaders. Gain control of the media to starve adversaries of access to the public. Discredit what media you cannot control. Reward loyalists with government tenders. Punish the disloyal with punitive taxes and lawsuits. Stack the courts. Jigger the constitution so that opponents have no hope of coming to power through democratic means. Erode critical civil rights and freedoms, stitch by stitch—until elections still happen, but denuded of everything that makes elections meaningful.” Only in the New York Times can these trends be attributed to Trump, or to conservatives. The real threat to the liberal political order is the combination of crony capitalism, public employee political activity, massive government subsidies for leftist causes, relentless lawfare, and celebration of victimhood as the highest form of human achievement. I confess to being puzzled by the gap between the brilliance of your Warlock essay and what I regard as a strange and skewed view of current U.S. political forces. I think you need some better reference points for anti-Progressive thinking. I will suggest just one, Manhattan Contrarian, which is my personal favorite for consistently shrewd analysis of the Progressive state. [See http://manhattancontrarian.com]
I am ALSO "puzzled by the gap between the brilliance of your Warlock essay and what I regard as a strange and skewed view of current U.S. political forces." For a start read Peggy Noonan's 2016 piece on 'the unprotected' voting for Trump. Whether it is NATO, global warming, or immigration just follow the money. Who benefits? Who is harmed? Seven of the nine richest counties in the US border DC. What happens to anyone even threatening to disturb this? Why is Trump's threat to NOT invade or meddle in every country's affairs such a bad thing? I do not understand.
Hi Claire, Coming up on one year since you started this journey. I was getting updates regularly on Ricochet and through Facebook. I enjoyed the podcasts and initial involvement, but have lost touch with the whole project. Wondering how its going and if you plan to share your project going forward through the same avenues? If not, where can we follow the book's progress? Best wishes.
I prefer "Europe in the Age of ISIS" for two reasons: 1) It's more accurate, in that Trump is new to the scene, and nothing he has done (yet) has had any effect on the European recovery of backbone; and 2) by putting Trump's name in the subtitle you're somewhat tying the book's fortunes to his. Yes, he won the election, but now he must govern. If his presidency doesn't go well . . . And are you a Trumpista?
JV DeLong has his finger on some important items in his quote below. To which could be added, the European paucity of NATO defense spending is the flip side of its decades of reliance on US military spending on their behalf while their own went to sumptuous social welfare programs. Small wonder Trump berated them - he doesn't feel the US should face Russia unsupported, and bluntly says so.
I will reserve judgment until the book appears, by which time the West will presumably have unraveled. I have a feeling that we shall agree on the effect and disagree on the cause. I shall gallantly give you the advantage by declaring my hand straight away. The West IS unraveling, but US policy is not to blame. There are two destructive tendencies working in parallel. The first is a rise in populism coupled with the decline of the nation-state. The second is the substitution of Islamic values for Christian values, particularly in Europe. The other piece of knitting which is unraveling stitch by stitch is the Democratic Party of the US.
You know there is a book in there somewhere in the pile of ideas. The problem is the premise. Trump is a bit of an oddity - like Teddy Roosevelt, a celebrity. But he is not Putin. The real book premise worth pursuing is the slide into authoritarian/oligarchic capitalism similar to what China promotes or what Russia, Iran, Venezuela, etc. promote. In fact, to the extent the US is oligarchy (and it may be becoming that) that is the issue that spawns Trump, or in the UK Brexit, and challenges conventional climate, social justice, immigration, income equality, etc. policies when promoted by Davos Man to the masses.
what a complete load of crap. MAGA
Your essay "The Warlock Hunt" is one of the most honest, intelligent and insightful essays I have read in a long time. On the strength of that alone, I gratefully make a contribution to your book. In fact, I encourage you to consider a book-length version of "The Warlock Hunt." PS -- Friendly suggestion: evolutionary psychology has much to offer -- certainly moreso that Freudianism.
claire, best wishes in your efforts. we really live in interesting times, and i don't know how you concentrate on this with all that is happening in the world. Just the turkish part is unsettling. Remember however, things have been a lot worse in times past, and there is a lot of ruin in a country.