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White House exterior on March 7, 2021
The exterior of the White House is seen from outside the security fencing on March 7, 2021 in Washington, D.C.Sarah Silbiger / Getty Images, file

‘Liberal’ doesn’t always mean what the right thinks it means

A White House reference to the "liberal world order" caused a massive freak-out on the right, but the apoplexy was wildly misplaced.


In June 2019, as a G-20 summit was poised to get underway, Russia’s Vladimir Putin echoed one of this favorite claims about Western-style liberalism: It’s “become obsolete,” the authoritarian leader declared.

Soon after, at the same international gathering, a reporter asked Donald Trump for his reaction. The problem was, the then-American president quickly made clear that he didn’t understand the question at a conceptual level.

“Well, he may feel that way,” the Republican said, referring to his counterpart in Moscow. “He says what’s going on. I guess you look at what’s happening in Los Angeles, where it’s so sad to look, and what’s happening in San Francisco, and a couple other cities which are run by an extraordinary group of liberal people, I don’t know what they’re thinking.... We can’t continue to let that happen to our cities.”

In other words, Trump heard a reference to “Western-style liberalism” and immediately thought of Democrats in California. That’s because the Republican has probably never taken a political science class, which would’ve taught him that Western-style liberalism refers to free countries with advanced economies in Europe and North America.

When Putin dismissed the West as “obsolete,” he wasn’t referring to San Francisco; he was condemning the U.S., the U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, et al.

All of this came to mind late last week, after President Joe Biden connected Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to American consumers paying higher gas prices. Brian Deese, director of the White House National Economic Council, was asked about this on CNN. He responded:

“Well, what you heard from the president today was a clear articulation of the stakes. ​​This is about the future of the liberal world order and we have to stand firm. But at the same time, what I would say to that family and Americans across the country is you have a president and an administration that is going to do everything in its power to blunt those price increases and bring those prices down.”

The phrasing wasn’t especially unusual — Biden made nearly identical comments in March and May, generating effectively zero pushback — but Deese’s comments nevertheless caused a surprisingly robust freak-out on the right.

One Fox News personality declared, “That one sound bite should be in every commercial for every Republican campaign.” Donald Trump Jr. insisted that the phrase confirmed right-wing conspiracy theories. Pretty much every conservative outlet you can think of joined the outrage parade — the gist was that a White House official had “admitted” something nefarious — and as of this morning, the clip of Deese’s comments on CNN has been viewed nearly 4 million times on Twitter.

The apoplexy is misplaced. As Politico summarized:

For those not steeped in international relations jargon, the “liberal world order” (or the “liberal international order”) refers to the rules and norms that have governed global affairs since the end of World War II — and is not related to domestic American liberal politics. In other words, Deese’s answer basically boils down to “If the West doesn’t defend Ukraine, then democracy around the world is undermined and threatened.”

In fairness, it’s worth noting that some on the left weren’t altogether pleased with Deese’s phrasing, arguing that White House officials should use less sophisticated language that would be more difficult for Republicans to manipulate and exploit.

Maybe so. But let’s not pretend that Deese said something scandalous, when in reality, he stated a simple truth. For generations, Democrats and Republicans have both supported the liberal world order, and it’s likely that some of the conservatives who went berserk on Friday know that.