The Republican Party is the party of yesterday.
Desperately seeking to cling to the presidency despite cratering polls, a collapsing economy and the worst public health crisis in a century, Donald Trump has embraced a defense of the losers in the American Civil War as a central theme of his campaign.
This, combined with 1980s-vintage commitment to deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy, the racism of 1960s era governors from the Deep South, and tactics branding opponents as Marxists and anarchists that date to the middle of the last century and before — that is the totality of Trump’s platform. If a policy is both old and odious, he has embraced it.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, has his eyes firmly set on the future. He is openly campaigning to succeed Trump as the party’s leader and to be its candidate in 2024. While Trump’s weakness has already got others positioning for the same role — notably Senator Tom Cotton, Senator Mitt Romney, Representative Liz Cheney and former U.S. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley — Pompeo is making the most of his unique platform to gain an edge.
Over the weekend, he even undertook a mission to a place you seldom see Secretaries of State, but is essential ground to cover for presidential candidates: Iowa. He criss-crosses the heartland in his official jet, ostensibly promoting America, but in fact just promoting his favorite American: himself.
While Pompeo’s eyes may be on a future prize though, as a Republican, he knows his policies must come from the past. And in keeping with his soaring ambition, Pompeo is seeking to outdo Trump in this regard. He is combining the racism of the 19th century with the theocracy of the 14th century, and leavening it with rewriting much of the history that happened in between.
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In a week of dreadful pandemic news, further worsening of America’s economic nightmare and continuing revelations about Trump’s unfitness and corruption, it would be easy to skip over Pompeo’s remarks as more self-serving bloviation from a wannabe candidate of tomorrow.
But not only do the remarks reveal much about the man who gave them, they also reveal an effort by some extremist Republicans to completely redefine America’s attitude toward the most basic of human rights, and to do so in a way that is not only profoundly wrong-headed but shockingly hypocritical in light of the activities of the Trump administration.
To the extent the speech gained attention in the U.S., it was primarily due to the fact that during it, Pompeo assailed the New York Times for its 1619 Project history of slavery in America. He asserted that the project misrepresented American history as being the story of "only the oppressors and the oppressed" which offered a "dark vision of America’s birth." He asserted this view of history was "Marxist" and that it likely delighted the Communists in Beijing. He rejected the idea that American institutions "continue to reflect the country’s acceptance of slavery at our founding."
According to Foreign Policy, these remarks immediately produced pushback from diplomats in the State Department who saw them and the commission as having the shared objective of “denigrating the movement for equal justice and the call for racial reckoning and healing in America.”
The remarks were, clearly, also anti-historical, seeking to minimize the fact that slavery was core to the U.S. economy since its founding through the Civil War, that the debate over its role was so intense that it led to that civil war, and in the wake of that war there has been an active effort to preserve and even glorify the racist views of the proponents of slavery that has extended through to Trump’s advocacy of preserving statues of Confederate leaders and celebrating the display of the Confederate flag.
Denying institutional racism exists in the U.S. is not only indefensible but a defense of the racism that is part of the status quo. And racism in America has driven human rights violations for four hundred years—up to an including the inequality built within our system that has made people of color disproportionately the victims of the current COVID-19 pandemic and the economic disaster it has triggered. Which means that Pompeo’s purportedly pro-human rights speech was actually a defense of the violation of human rights.
Hypocrisy and a rejection of history were, however, perhaps the central themes of Pompeo’s remarks. After all, he was offering this speech on human rights even as the Trump administration was deploying teams of police without insignia into American cities to quash peaceful protests and to suppress free expression.
That no insignia paramilitary creep into law enforcement is a page directly out of the "little green men" playbook (the camouflaged pro-Russian soldiers aiding separatists in Ukraine) and the history of fascism more broadly, as Nancy Pelosi indicated when she declared, "Trump and his [unidentified] stormtroopers must be stopped."
While free expression is a core human right, celebrated by the founders as perhaps the most important to the survival of democracy, Pompeo was also attacking the New York Times for promoting "hatred of America" (meaning views different from those of the administration). That too is tied to the broader efforts of the Trump White House to attack press freedom in the U.S. and to promote authoritarian, repressive regimes worldwide.
Pompeo’s serial defenses of those repressive regimes — like the one in Saudi Arabia or, for that matter, the increasingly anti-democratic coalition currently in power in Israel, itself a serial violator of the human rights of the Palestinian people — added another dimension of hypocrisy to the speech.
Pompeo singled out Iran and China for criticism. But even there, he neglected to note his boss’ explicit approval ("exactly the right thing to do") of China’s expansion of concentration camps as reported by John Bolton in his book. (Not to mention Trump’s close relationship with the thug regime in Moscow.) Nor, of course, did he care to address America’s own establishment of concentration camps for immigrant families along our borders.
This was not the first instance of hypocrisy, even spectacular, mind-blowing hypocrisy from a U.S. Secretary of State or from Pompeo. What was especially unsettling however, was his effort in the speech to draw a distinction between different types of human rights.
He asserted that two such rights were "foremost." They were religious liberty and property rights. Setting aside for a moment that, again, this was from the representative of a country that made a Muslim ban one of its first initiatives, the proposal was trouble on several levels.
One was that by elevating these two rights and arguing that other rights recognized as equally important by the global community were less important to the U.S., it raised the possibility that some rights would not be treated as rights at all. Human history makes it clear that if all rights are not defended equally, all will not be preserved.
Secondly, Pompeo’s focus on religion reiterated a theme of his tenure at State. He has kept a Bible on his desk and he has thumped it on a regular basis. His pro-religious speeches — notably his pronouncement of his belief in the Rapture — have gained headlines. But his active advocacy of Christian evangelical views worries both those who believe in the separation of church and state and those who worry about the promotion of the idea of the U.S. as a "Christian" nation — and of basing U.S. policy on a form of Christian nationalism.
Pompeo’s promotion of property rights as equal to religious freedom echoes the popular evangelical doctrine of the "prosperity gospel" and the current GOP formula of playing to either to the greed or the white Christian values of its base. It also is itself rather ahistorical, ignoring the deliberate shift America’s founders made from John Locke’s enumeration of "life, liberty and property" as the core rights of people to their own, less materialistic, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
But again, the real shock is having an American official suggest that somehow the right to property is more important than say, free speech, or equal protection under the law, or the right not to be subject to torture or cruel punishment, or the right to live free of discrimination, or the right to asylum, or the right to peaceful assembly or the right to vote. All of these are rights guaranteed under our system and by the UN Declaration of Human Rights. And all are rights that have been violated or are under siege from the Trump administration.
Take these facts together — the selective promotion of certain rights and the serial violation of others — and combine them with the elements of history Pompeo chose to distort, and you come away with the clear impression that this speech was more notable for the rights it put at risk than those it defended.
It was yet another retreat by the United States away from its role as a champion of international law and freedoms. And it was a signpost for how the Trump administration intends to grind those freedoms into the dirt within America itself.
And while Pompeo may think it was a good way to strengthen himself with his base, it certainly also had the effect of clearly casting him as an enemy of both the ideas and ideals on which the United States was founded.
David Rothkopf is a foreign policy expert and author, host of the Deep State Radio podcast and CEO of The Rothkopf Group, LLC a media and advisory firm. His next book, "Traitor: A History of American Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump," will be published in October 2020. Twitter: @djrothkopf