Reclaiming Liberalism

Third in a sermon series  Rev. Brian J. Kiely   November 25, 2018


“Trump’s mood takes a foul turn”  November 15, 2018

By several CNN reporters

Washington (CNN) A political clobbering, bickering aides and now a public grenade launched across the White House by the first lady have placed President Donald Trump in a position he loathes: backed into a corner.

A week after standing in the East Room and declaring victory in the midterm elections, the President is isolated and growing more furious by the day. He’s openly speculating about replacing more members of his Cabinet, though so far has stopped short of executing the dismissals, leaving those aides in a career purgatory…

After nearly a month straight of campaigning before adoring crowds, the applause has gone silent and the President has retreated. The tempest has led to rampant speculation inside the building about the fates of other senior staffers, some of whom are beginning to plan their exits…

The timing for the President’s fury couldn’t be worse, considering the White House is heading into uncharted territory with Democrats assuming control of the House. Trump has told some advisers he’s itching for the fight, believing it can provide him a political foil. Meanwhile, Mueller is inching closer to issuing his report on the Russia investigation…

The Melania- Ricardel episode underscored the dysfunction that continues to pervade West Wing staffing matters almost two years into the Trump presidency. It lays bare the continued factionalism pitting aides against each other, often in convoluted and unpredictable configurations. And it reflects the deep unease within the White House as Democrats prepare to launch an assault of investigations into all manner of administration business…

Trump’s foul mood, meanwhile, has rendered the White House a tumultuous workplace where outbursts are becoming more common. The decision to scrap a planned visit to an American cemetery in France because of rain over the weekend only deepened the President’s conviction that he’s being misserved by some of his staffers.

Neither they nor the President expected the massive backlash the decision prompted, which sank in over the course of the following hours. As he watched the onslaught of headlines criticizing him for skipping the trip with no backup plan, the President took his anger out on Staff.

“The Real Lesson of My Debate with Steve Bannon”

David Frum (The Atlantic)

As a debater, (Steve) Bannon proved engaging and entertaining. When one of his lines gained lonely
applause from a single audience member, Bannon quipped, “Thanks, Mom.” That lit up the room.

But the longer Bannon spoke, the clearer it became how empty the populist program is. It could observe and exploit the failures of the past 15 years. Trump in 2016 promised that he would provide better health insurance to all Americans at lower cost both to individuals and to the government. That promise has been dishonored. When asked to explain why, Bannon could only point to Paul Ryan and say, “His fault.” Ditto for Trump’s failure to keep his promise to cut taxes for middle-income people by raising them on the financial industry. Ditto for the broken promises to build infrastructure and save lives from opioid addiction. Ditto for the fact that illegal immigration and trade deficits are rising under Trump, despite his emphatic promises to lower both.

The populists identified real concerns—but their answers amount to a fraud and a scam. The failures of a basically good system do not justify overthrowing it and replacing it with something evil.


In the first sermon of this series I showed the historic links between liberalism, rationalism and Unitarian Universalism. In the second I painted a pretty bleak picture of the threat Trump-like populism is posing to the tradition of liberal democracy in many parts of the world.  So does the liberal, rational philosophy have a future?  The short answer is yes.

Liberalism, with its reliance on reasoned discussion, logic  and the art of compromise has never completely gone away in the last two and half centuries.  It has been attacked. This is far from the first time.  There are times when this philosophy was out of favour and even reviled.

And let’s be fair: there are times when it deserved to be attacked.  Reasonable societies have done some terrible things using what once seemed like reasonable arguments.  Residential schools, forced sterilization, internment of Japanese civilians in WWII, even the imposition of the War Measures Act in Quebec in 1970 were justified by reasonable men offering rational arguments.  

They may have been working on false assumptions and bad information, but they were creating their policy using the tools of logic and rationality.  Liberalism is not a perfect philosophy.  Any position built on a false premise is likely to cause bad things.  The number of policies built on the assumption that some other race was somehow lesser than the dominant culture has led to centuries of abuse and created social problems that plague us to this day.

And while liberalism has much for which to answer, its flaws have not justified the intensity of the attack the philosophy has endured.  In fact, most of the abuses mentioned in the last paragraph have been lessened and improved (not fixed) by people refining positions and engaging in reasoned, compassionate discussion.  

The real attacks to liberal democratic philosophy have been far more frightening.  There have been wars, the rise of fascism, the suppression of the press, the blocking of education (especially for women), the banning of books, the imposition of laws that remove or limit human rights. The intent of these strategies has been to destroy public discussion, to confine real decision-making power in the hands of a very few.  Debate was defamed and then shut down.  Reasonable critics were labelled ‘dissidents’ if not traitors and were silenced, sometimes even killed… like Jamal Kashoggi a few weeks ago.

Last week I mentioned Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels and his theory of the Big Lie: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from… consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie…”  The most serious attacks on liberalism have come from the advocates of the big lie, populists who inflate whatever legitimate beefs they might have with fear and disinformation.

Liberalism has at times been buried underground by anger, bigotry and even the violence of war.  It seems that when the false logic of oppressors fails and has its emptiness put on display, the response is often hateful, loud and demeaning.  The violence of the irrational rages like a wildfire.

Still, no wildfire can burn forever.  Eventually the fury runs out of fuel, the fire weakens and dies and the ground cools. Then things begin to grow again.  Seeds that have been buried safely beneath the heat germinate and sprout. And those sprouts often grow stronger, fed by the fertilizer of the spent fires. 

Liberalism is so much a part of the roots of western society that it cannot help but to grow again.  It has become part of our genetic structure as a culture.  All we need to do is have patience that the rule of reasoned law, supported by charters of rights, the factual truths of science and the cooperative nature of human compassion will survive and find their place again.

Well, wait a minute, there is more we can do than just wait.  And there are more importantly things we cannot do.  In the 1930’s George Orwell, best known for 1984, wrote several short and tightly reasoned essays demanding that reasonable and rational people be on guard against the rise of the very populism that allowed the growth of fascism and the kind of Trumpism we see today.  We cannot stand idly by just with patience in the long term salvation.  Smart people can see small fires before they become wildfires.  We have to identify and combat those before they get out of control.  We must guard our legal systems and our electoral systems of democracy with fierceness.  

The Trump White House was only made possible by decades of eroding of voter rights and gerrymandering of electoral districts by Republican statehouses.  That was far more important to that victory than any upswelling of populist sentiment.    

The time to defeat Trump was 2009 as the Tea Party was birthed not 2016.  During the Obama years, the ultra-conservatives made large gains at the state level and started making it harder of some people to vote and harder for democrats to get elected.  Instead of vigilance, a self-congratulatory left went home after Obama’s inauguration thinking their work was done.  It was really only beginning.

And similarly, the time to defeat the likes of Doug Ford is right now, just as he is getting started by loudly protesting his attack on French language rights, his attack on income inequality, his gutting of social programming.  And yes, use the courts to challenge his tinkering with the Toronto City Council.  As Mr. Trump has discovered, the courts are not friendly to those who do not respect constitutions.

Orwell demanded that liberals hold themselves to account just as much as the forces with which they disagreed.  It was imperative that liberals police their own thinking and language, and not simply enjoy the status quo of good lives and the illusion of security.  The kind of threat we now face crept up because too few of us lacked vigilance.  Liberalism requires constant challenge from within, so that it can be strong and ready for challenges from without.

And let’s be clear, adopting the tactics of the far right is not the way to keep liberalism strong either.  We must counter their fear-mongering with reason and even generosity.  We must counter lies with truth and we must seek the non-violent path for as long as possible.  Countering irrationality with irrationality will only weaken the liberal cause.

Liberal strategies will not change things overnight.  It’s not that the utterance of a fact or a truth spoken with the clarity of a blue gem-like flame immediately undoes all the irrationality and greed that has preceded it.  The world doesn’t work that way.  People don’t easily give up their beliefs or their benefits, as I noted last week.

Choosing to pursue the liberal path requires – wait for it, faith!  Classically faith is a belief in things unseen.   Change requires faith that better things can happen. It also requires patience, patience that better things will come in time.  Few of any social ills, injustices or even wars are ended overnight.

Consider how long women have been struggling for equality in the work place, or demanding safe streets.  Consider how long First Nations people have had to wait first for the closing of residential schools and then for an acknowledgement that the whole thing had been bad policy and an attempt at cultural genocide. 

There is a passage in our hymnbook (#698) written by Canadian minister Wayne Arnason.  It’s most often used as closing words:

Take courage friends.  The way is often hard, the path is never clear and the stakes are very high.  Take courage.  For there is another truth: you are not alone.

The challenge, then, for liberals who trust deeply in the power of reason, the supremacy of fact over unsupported belief and the value of rational debate as a means for achieving the best policy outcomes, the challenge is just to stick with it.  To have faith that the pendulum will again swing away from the “big lie” populists and back our way.  And as Wayne suggests, we have to use institutions like this church to find one another, to find people willing to work with us and to wait with us and most importantly to help us test and refine our ideas according to a set of Principles.  Communities like this sustain us while we work and while we wait.

We have to trust that most of the inflated empires of the noisy firebrands will collapse under the weight of their insincerity and their lack of a coherent and sustaining ethic.  Populism is the fire that burns the land, a fire lit by grievance – sometimes legitimate.  It is fuelled by anger and fear that can even edge into paranoia.  Those emotions, those irrationalities feed the empty rhetoric, fill the balloon with more hot air.  But – and this is a very large but -these things are insufficient to sustain meaningful revolution or change. Too much energy and too many resources have to be spent keeping that fire going, a process that is ultimately futile.  Collapse is inevitable, not just for lack of fuel, but because their movement has no foundation, no real roots that can survive the ravaging fires and renew itself.

In the CNN analysis of Trump’s crumbling White House we see that populism is already starting to crack under the crushing weight of its unfulfilled promises and lies. Mr. Trump has no recourse, no base on which to build, so he doubles down with attacks on the judiciary and now an empty threat to shut the Mexican border entirely – something that would cripple the economies of both countries in days.

 As David Frum phrased it in a passage I quoted last week, “(populist leaders) have no plans and no plans to make plans.”  Mr. Trump has no real plans, no blueprint.  He never has had one.  He just has the ever increasing collection of lies and unfulfilled promises.

Frum has a damning comment on populism that is a hopeful way to end this series.  He was writing about who he most hoped to address in his portion of the Munk debate with Steve Bannon:

I hoped to speak, finally, to those who see populism for what it is – and support it.  I hoped to look in the face of their most self-conscious and articulate champion, Steve Bannon, and tell them: You will lose.  You will discover what so many thugs, and bullies, and plunderers, and people who elevate themselves by subordinating and humiliating others have discovered before you:  Liberal democracy is tougher than it looks.  

The cruel always believe the kind are weak.  But human decency and goodness can also move human affairs.  They will be felt.  And today’s ‘populists’ will follow their predecessors into what President George W. Bush aptly called ‘history’s graveyard of discarded lies.”

So to sum up, yes, the foundations of liberal democracy are under attack.  But this is not the first time and it won’t be the last.  Over the last two and a half centuries this philosophy, coupled with science and education has led us to a healthier, safer, world where people are fed better and live longer, where most humans have at least some protections for their basic rights.  There is still so very much to do, but liberalism has helped us get this far and will help us get much farther still.

It will take patience.

It will take faith.

It will take perseverance.

It will take rigid self-evaluation.

It will take the courage to stick to our Principles.