Tough Talk =/= Tough

I have to give it to Sarah Palin. One of the reasons that she became so popular with the Republican base is that she has a way of distilling their thinking down to its core. In her interview on CNN on Sunday, she did just that when she said that she’d “rather have a tough president than one who can win at trivial pursuit.”

Of course that was Palin’s way of defending Donald Trump who – in an interview with Hugh Hewitt – demonstrated that he didn’t know about Iranian General Soleimani or the difference between the Kurds and the Iranian Quds Forces.

By saying that she prefers a “tough” president like Donald Trump, Palin is endorsing his bullying Alpha-male routine against all those emasculated men who know stuff. This resonates with the crowd who thinks that both the liberal and conservative “elites” look down on them for their ignorance.

In many ways, that line of thinking embraces the backlash to the rise of the feminine and combines it with a movement to upend the whole idea of meritocracy that was formerly a foundational principle for conservatives. In Sarah Palin’s world, it doesn’t matter if you are ignorant. What matters is that you can bully people with your tough talk.

For decades, Republicans have been trying to convince us that the challenges we face in the world are simple. It all comes down to “good vs evil.” For Reagan, it was the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union. And for George W. Bush, it was the “axis of evil” made up of Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

The question Hugh Hewitt posed to Donald Trump subtly upended that kind of formulation of “good vs evil.” In Iraq, the Quds forces of Iran led by General Soleimani have been fighting against ISIS. That poses an “evil vs evil” conundrum for conservatives. How do you talk tough on that one?

The fact of the matter is that the world is complex. That’s not a new phenomenon. Back in the days when we were engaged in a Cold War with the “evil empire,” we often chose the side of tyrannical dictators who were fighting against the aspirations of their people. But as long as we could promote the propaganda that they were actually “communists,” we convinced ourselves that we were supporting the good over the evil.

That has gotten harder to do lately with our focus on the Middle East. As an example of how dangerous ignorance can be, there are reports that President George Bush was unaware of the difference between Shia and Sunni as late as two months before the Iraq invasion. We all paid a price for that ignorance. But Palin solves all that for herself by simply choosing tough talk over an informed opinion. That appeals to those who find complexity challenging and would rather cling to their truthiness than confront the truth.

The rest of us need to remember that tough talk =/= tough. The reality is that tough talk divorced from knowledge means you do dumb things…like start dumb wars that diminish our standing in the world – not to mention their cost in lives and money. By doing things like raising global sanctions on Iran that brought them to the negotiating table to craft an agreement on nuclear weapons, President Obama has demonstrated that knowledge + toughness is what is required.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.