Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
If your mind is made up, skip this; it will aggravate you needlessly, which is not my intention. The notes below are for people who are genuinely undecided or curious to know what one of Margaret Thatcher’s biographers makes of this election. As for why I couldn’t keep it to a single essay, the answer is that given enough time, I could have. And should have. But it won’t be relevant in 2020.
1. “These people.“
There are four well-known Americans in that clip: Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, James Comey, and Barack Obama. It makes sense for them to be in that ad, given the circumstances. The other three? George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein. A bit less obvious why they’re there.
TRUMP: Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt political establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American people. (The visuals show stacks of dollar bills, signs pointing to Wall Street and to the Capitol.)
An odd way of putting it. In what way will it be more controlled by Americans than the current government? Americans voted for this one, didn’t we? It’s comprised of Americans, right?
TRUMP: The Establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election. For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people who don’t have your good in mind.
Who are “these people?”
TRUMP: The political establishment that is trying to stop us is the same group responsible for our disastrous trade deals, massive illegal immigration, and economic and foreign policies that have bled our country dry. The political Establishment has brought about the destruction of our factories, and our jobs, as they flee to Mexico, China, and other countries all around the world. It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.
Say what? What kind of global power structure is responsible for these decisions, and which decisions were they, exactly? How exactly was our wealth stripped and put into “a handful of large corporations and political entities?” And by whom?
TRUMP: The only thing that can stop this corrupt machine is you. The only force strong enough to save our country is us. The only people brave enough to vote out this corrupt establishment is you, the American people. I’m doing this for the people and for the movement and we will take back this country and we will make American great again.
And why did he illustrate this with photos of American Jews who work in finance?
But surely he didn’t mean it that way. Reading anti-Semitism into that is paranoid.
No, he meant it that way. The voice-over comes from a Trump speech at a rally in West Palm Beach, Florida, in October:
TRUMP: There is nothing the political establishment will not do. No lie they won’t tell, to hold their prestige and power at your expense, and that’s what’s been happening. … We will end the politics of profit [my note: known as capitalism?], we will end the rule of special interests, we will end the raiding of our jobs by other countries. … We’ve seen this firsthand in the WikiLeaks documents, in which Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors. … Let’s be clear on one thing, the corporate media in our country is no longer involved in journalism. They’re a political special interest no different than any lobbyist or other financial entity with a total political agenda, and the agenda is not for you, it’s for themselves. And their agenda is to elect crooked Hillary Clinton at any cost, at any price, no matter how many lives they destroy. For them it’s a war, and for them nothing at all is out of bounds. This is a struggle for the survival of our nation, believe me.
And this imagery, all of it, comes from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (If you’ve never read that through, please do before deciding you disagree). Here we have wealthy, international bankers plotting to destroy our nation and take over the world, a mysterious global cabal that controls politicians through their money or through the power of the media they dominate, a ruthless and amoral “war” to exploit the naive, the poor and the vulnerable for their own greedy ends. The only word missing is “Jew.”
PROTOCOLS: … The nations of the West are being brought under international control at political, military and economic levels. They are rapidly in process of becoming controlled also on the social level. All alike are being told that their only hope lies in the surrender of national sovereignty. …
After Trump gave that speech in Florida, the Anti-Defamation League immediately protested, calling on him to abstain from using “rhetoric and tropes that historically have been used against Jews and still spur anti-Semitism.” That’s to say, there’s no way he could have been unaware that these rhetoric and tropes have historically been used against Jews and still spur anti-Semitism, particularly since his speech is used against Jews and does spur anti-Semitism. Read that last link through to see what I mean. This has been widely reported; he surely knows about it.
Trump knows that many Jews — along with many who recognize the provenance of the imagery — were horrified by that speech, and many anti-Semites thrilled by it. Yet this is the ad he’s running in the last days of the campaign. He took a speech that had already been denounced by the ADL for ambiguously playing with the classic tropes of exterminationist anti-Semitism and made it unambiguous by decorating it with images of rich, powerful Jews. He either knew what he was doing or he’s not smart enough to feed himself unaided.
Oh, he’s just opening up the Overton window so we don’t have to choke on political correctness anymore, Besides, the Left is really anti-Semitic, too.
The KKK, white supremacists, church-burners, mosque-vandalizers, and every other truly deplorable group in America has been galvanized and Overton-windowed by Trump’s campaign. Trump, in full awareness of what’s been shaking out of this tree, keeps shaking it. Did he pause to imagine the consequences this might have for his own daughter and grandchildren? Responsibility? Decency? Concern about the effect this is having on our country and its social cohesion? No, screw it: he doubled down.
2. Worse things have happened.
A vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton, wrote Newt Gingrich yesterday, likening her to Richard Nixon, “is a vote for four years of corruption, investigation, and gridlock.”
Yes. I know. That’s okay. It’s not what ideally I’d wish, but it’s not the worst thing in the world.
I do not think Trump is Hitler, if only because historical analogies are always flawed. But the analogy is correct enough in some respects that who would want to see whether it holds in the most relevant respects? Trump has this in common with Hitler (and with all garden-variety despots, too; it is a fixed personality type): enamorment of conspiracy theories, raving speech, anti-intellectualism, unprincipled opportunism, clownishness, bluster, threats, certainty that there are simple solutions to complex problems, vulgarity, palingenetic fantasies, appeals to ethno-nationalism, an obsession with “strength,” “stamina,” health, and physical perfection, a hatred of women, an instinct to mock the weak and the crippled, a disgust with “losers,” a hysterical fear of germs and contamination, literal and metaphoric. He invokes foreign cancers that must be excised before they metastasize and destroy a body politic weakened by traitors. He believes that winners and the strong enjoy the moral right to rule. He holds that the nation can be saved only through the singular genius and energy of a “great personality,” as Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf or a “great temperament,” as Trump read in Mein Kampf. “I alone can fix it” says Trump. “I am your voice.” He is visibly excited by talk of violence; his mental map of the world is one of perpetual conflict. His bragging, ranting, and perseverating, his disconnect from reality, his millenarianism, his hatred of liberals, conservatives, and the press, his fascination with dictators, thugs, lowlifes and creeps, past and present — for goodness sake, must he bark in German before the analogy is alarming enough? Trump is not just an oaf and not just a bully. These words are naive. Our imaginations and vocabularies have become hollowed out. He exemplifies a specific mindset, temperament, and ideology: it is a fascist one.
No, it is not absurd to invoke fascism; it’s absurd to deny it. He has not said, outright, that he has no use for democracy and the law, but his contempt for both is clear enough. This is a good enough definition of the fascist minimum:
… a genuinely revolutionary, trans-class form of anti-liberal, and in the last analysis, anticonservative nationalism. … a populist mass movement through a liturgical style of politics and a programme of radical policies which promised to overcome the threat posed by international socialism, to end the degeneration affecting the nation under liberalism, and to bring about a radical renewal of its social, political and cultural life as part of what was widely imagined to be the new era being inaugurated in Western civilization. The core mobilizing myth of fascism which conditions its ideology, propaganda, style of politics, and actions is the vision of the nation’s imminent rebirth from decadence.
“Fascism is a political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism” … “fascists advocated a mixed economy aimed at achieving autarky through protectionism and interventionism … ” a solution of “anti-socialism, dirigiste economics and social policy, imperialism, militarism, leader cult, [and] the compromise with traditional conservatism” … “We will no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism.” (“Does not our bourgeoisie rise in moral indignation when it hears from the lips of some miserable tramp that he doesn’t care whether he is German or not, that he feels at home anywhere, as long as he has enough to live on?”) To the victors go the spoils. The casual promise that he will order the military to commit murder, transforming America from the country that hanged war criminals at Nuremberg into one whose criminals will need hanging. “They won’t refuse, they’re not going to refuse me — believe me.”
Our system is proof against that? The one helmed by Paul Ryan von Papen and Ted Cruz Hindenburg? If it is an insult to memory too readily to make comparisons Germany in the 1930s, it is also one to refuse, when it is warranted, to make them at all –- or even to ask if they’re warranted.
Hillary Clinton and her bewildered personal press corps are so depleted in imagination, so weighted down by the freight of clichés, that they can only reach for a word-soup that makes Trump sound kind of fun, by golly: racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic — isn’t he an imp! The string of admonishments irritates more than it alarms. The words she needs are nouns: tyrant, autocrat, Caudillo, lunatic, despot, fool.
3. But He’ll Appoint the Best People
But what of his promises to appoint the best advisors and save the Supreme Court? Isn’t good old, bland old Mike Pence reassuring? Like a trial for witchcraft, this question represents a concession to lunacy. We cannot seriously be discussing Donald Trump’s promises and political ideas, can we? Diligently fact-checking his claims, examining the cost and feasibility of his policy proposals? Can he even remember his promises from day to day? You know that any original idea he has is crazy and any sensible idea is ghostwritten. He’s not able to be sensible: There’s a cognitive deficit there. His memory seems often to stop in the 1980s, when he styled himself the king of New York real estate, chasing strange on its nightclub circuit. He speaks and answers questions in ways that make no sense, in strings of unconnected words bookmarked by perseverations and bizarre ejaculations. He cannot help himself. His coterie has him lashed to the mast right now to keep his fingers off his Twitter account, but he’ll wriggle out of their grip soon enough. Which one of his advisors, do you think, will be the real power behind the throne? Steve Bannon? Melania?
4. Lesser Evils
As everyone says, every day, Trump says or does something that before this election would have stopped a presidential candidacy stone cold. None of it seems to matter. Almost everything he says is vile or a lie, his contempt for decency exceeded only by his contempt for other Americans. None of it seems to matter.
But Hillary lies. She does. But the difference is this: Her lies are a plausible version of reality — even if they’re not true, they could be true — and her lies are not her appeal. Hillary heads up a plodding, bureaucratic, unimaginative coalition over whom she exercises no charismatic pull at all. Trump, however, has entered a folie à deux, or a folie à millions, with a significant sector of the American public. It’s unremarkable that one Donald J. Trump is incoherent, grandiose, and delusional — many are; what is astonishing, and so dangerous, is the number of Americans who are eager to share his delusions. This is new. It is why I’m not comforted by the constitutional limits on the American president’s power. We’re compelled to take seriously what he says, taking all of his contradictory proposal seriously — and literally — even if the exercise degrades us by its nature.
5. Despair and Donald Trump
Still more dangerous: His supporters are right to be furious. The Republic is sick, perhaps mortally. The elites are rotten; they have betrayed the public. Clinton seems to have little understanding, little hint even, of how much creative destruction we’ve unleashed and its consequences — although to be fair, no one understands it. Figures like Donald Trump don’t come on the scene otherwise. He’s a symptom, not a cause.
The most striking point, the warning alarm that everyone ignored: falling life expectancy among working-class white people. This is (or should have been) unthinkable. Within recent memory it was axiomatic that Americans were wealthier, healthier, more productive, longer-lived, and in every way better-blessed than any other people in the world, a truism that every child would get at least as far as his parents, and probably a lot further. To see falling life expectancies in America in any cohort is stunning, a complete reversal of demographic trends over the past century. The rising mortality rate is owed to despair — to drug poisoning, suicide, obesity, and alcohol-related liver disease. It’s eerily reminiscent of the catastrophic seven-year life-expectancy drop among Russian men in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Counties that voted for Trump in the primaries map closely, almost one-on-one, with counties where we see falling white lifespans. The anger makes perfect sense. It’s completely logical that people who have literally lost years of their lives during the Obama years see the prospect of Hillary — a third Obama term, in effect — as a mortal threat. There’s no way to say to these voters, with a straight face, “Come on now, you’re exaggerating, it’s not that bad. Hillary will be fine” It is exactly that bad; she won’t be fine, they’re dying. If I thought for a moment that Trump had something to offer us, I’d vote for him. But he doesn’t. He will make it worse than she is able to, faster. He is set to give the staggering Republic a last push over the edge. And then watch out, because the next guy won’t be Ben Sasse.
I lived through something like this in Turkey. I thought Americans were naive about Erdoğan because they didn’t have the first-hand view I did. Now I see: just naïve, period. Like Turks after years of bad governance, a significant number of Americans want what Trump is offering: authoritarianism. They’ve had it with the mess of liberal democracy. They want someone who can get things done.
When newspaper editorials frantically quack that Trump is attacking the traditional norms and institutions of our democracy, they’re right. He is. But this argument isn’t going to work on his supporters, because this is why they like him. They believe democracy has failed. They believe this political system is killing them, literally. You may be debating whether to vote for him with a clothespin over your nose, but if you’ve read this far, you’re not Trump’s power base. A solid core – how many, I don’t know – wants a revolution. They’re not voting against Hillary, or with a heavy heart, or to save the Supreme Court. They want to burn it all down, Year Zero, take a wrecking ball to Washington, and lock up the people on whose watch this took place. That these phrases are clichés shouldn’t dull us to a key point: They mean it.
6. The End of Supergrowth
Why is this happening? The end of the postwar economic miracle must, surely, be some part of the explanation, even if no single explanation suffices. Between 1870 to 1970 we had technology-powered supergrowth: electricity, telephones, aircraft powering economic growth globally at a speed hitherto unknown to humankind. This — and the Baby Boom — drove the great postwar economic expansion. It ended in 1973. No innovation since then, including the Internet, has come close in its potential to power that kind of rapid rise in living standards and productivity.
The economist Paul Samuelson calls the third quarter of the 20th Century a golden age that “surpassed any reasoned expectations. And we are not likely to see its equivalent soon again.” Is he right? I can’t say how likely it is; it’s not sound to extrapolate from the historic growth rate into the indefinite future. But it’s plausible, yes, that supergrowth is tapped out, at least for the time being, perhaps forever — particularly given the drop in our birth rate.
Rising automation has replaced what were once dignified jobs, mostly in manufacturing, but in other industries, too. (Like mine, as it happens.) I’m open to the argument that global trade has harmed US competitiveness in certain sectors, long-run. But what’s wiped out manufacturing is not trade: It’s automation. The US manufacturing sector is at near-record levels of output, but it employs ever-fewer workers. We’re producing more with less. Jobs cannot be brought back from China and Mexico because they didn’t go there in the first place. They ceased to exist in the modern world. That way of life is gone.
I don’t need anyone to tell me what it feels like slowly to realize you may never be able to get your financial house in order no matter how hard you work, will never be as successful as your parents, will never retire, and will be fearful about falling into destitution for the rest of your life. I’m living it. The subprime collapse, the Great Recession, and seemingly intractable secular stagnation are — clearly – the largest source of the destroyed confidence in our governance and institutions. It almost gave us Bernie Sanders and it’s far too close to giving us Donald Trump.
7. Democratic Recession
In 1974, there were only 46 countries in the world where citizens chose and replaced their leaders in regular, free, fair, and meaningful elections. Just as the era of rapid growth ended, the era of rapid democratization began. Portugal’s Carnation Revolution inaugurated what Samuel P. Huntington called the Third Wave of global democratization. From 1974 to 2007, the number of democracies more than doubled. There was a significant global expansion in freedom, as Americans would traditionally define it, too: economic liberty, political rights, and civil liberties.
And then it stopped. As Larry Diamond writes,
… around 2006, the expansion of freedom and democracy in the world came to a prolonged halt. Since 2006, there has been no net expansion in the number of electoral democracies, which has oscillated between 114 and 119 (about 60 percent of the world’s states). … the number of both electoral and liberal democracies began to decline after 2006 and then flattened out. Since 2006, the average level of freedom in the world has also deteriorated slightly, leveling off at about 3.30.
He calls this the “democratic recession.”
First, there has been a significant and, in fact, accelerating rate of democratic breakdown. Second, the quality or stability of democracy has been declining in a number of large and strategically important emerging-market countries, which I call “swing states.” Third, authoritarianism has been deepening, including in big and strategically important countries. And fourth, the established democracies, beginning with the United States, increasingly seem to be performing poorly and to lack the will and self-confidence to promote democracy effectively abroad.
If the decline in life expectancy in America recalls Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the collapse of confidence in liberal democracy recalls the collapse of faith in communism that precipitated the Soviet Union’s disintegration. It would be stunning and depressing to see this anywhere in the world, but it’s most stunning, and most strikingly aberrant, in the West — home to the world’s oldest, most affluent, and most consolidated democracies, after all. And to my astonishment, the United States is suffering from this disenchantment even more acutely than Europe:
I don’t know why Europe should be in slightly better shape, but it might be the obvious: Europe’s experiments with anti-democratic governance led to the greatest war and catastrophe in mankind’s history, so there’s more caution about this sentiment, or at least, stronger taboos against expressing it.
That what’s happening in the United States isn’t happening in isolation leaves me unconvinced by arguments that purport to explain American political despair in entirely American terms. It’s not logical to think support for Trump is a specific response to a specific failure in US governance or even a set of them, such as the deficiencies of Obamacare or our immigration policy. It’s certainly true that white supremacists adore Trump, but people who believe the primary cause of Trump is white supremacy — and a demographic change that makes white people fear they’re becoming minorities — can’t really explain why we’re seeing a similar disenchantment with liberal democracy in Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, Thailand, Botswana, Bangladesh, and Kenya, say. (They also can’t explain why many of his supporters voted for Obama in 2008.) This trend, for example, isn’t about whiteness.
Diamond’s metaphor of “democratic recession” evokes the global economic recession. And perhaps it’s really just as simple as that and we needn’t look further. I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure that what’s happening in the United States is not just the natural consequence of the incompetence and dysfunction of our government. It’s not plausible to think so many countries’ political elites became incompetent and dysfunctional at the same time.
I don’t know to what extent our foreign policy failures contribute to the disenchantment with our governance and institutions. I think it should contribute to it; it sure does to mine, but poll after poll suggests that Americans don’t care. And “foreign policy failure” wouldn’t account for the global trend.
It makes more sense to think we’re looking at the effects of overarching trends, from the historian’s perspective: the nature and pace of technological change, automation, urbanization, the associated destruction of town and village life, globalization, the lowered fertility rates that attend economic growth, the advent of the Internet. The only policy principle that seems clear to me from this is First, Do no harm. Don’t even move suddenly. A cautious incrementalist with no vision: I’m with her.
8. Urbanization and Polarization
American political parties are more polarized now than they have been at any time since the Civil War. Astonishing. We made it through Reconstruction, two World Wars, the Depression, Vietnam, and the Cold War without reaching this level of mutual partisan hatred. If I had to hazard a guess about the most important cause of the Big Sort, I’d say it’s this:
That’s the 2012 election map by county. What it says is almost unambiguous: The divide isn’t coastal elites versus ordinary people in the heartland. The divide is rural-urban. Here’s a cartogram that resizes the counties according to their population:
Believe it or not, my thinking about this issue was greatly influenced by a surprisingly compelling article I read in Cracked:
Step outside of the city, and the suicide rate among young people [redacted] doubles. The recession pounded rural communities, but all the recovery went to the cities. The rate of new businesses opening in rural areas has utterly collapsed.
See, rural jobs used to be based around one big local business — a factory, a coal mine, etc. When it dies, the town dies. Where I grew up, it was an oil refinery closing that did us in. I was raised in the hollowed-out shell of what the town had once been. The roof of our high school leaked when it rained. Cities can make up for the loss of manufacturing jobs with service jobs — small towns cannot. That model doesn’t work below a certain population density. …
The rural folk with the Trump signs in their yards say their way of life is dying, and you smirk and say what they really mean is that blacks and gays are finally getting equal rights and they hate it. But I’m telling you, they say their way of life is dying because their way of life is dying. It’s not their imagination. No movie about the future portrays it as being full of traditional families, hunters, and coal mines. Well, except for Hunger Games, and that was depicted as an apocalypse.
I’ve learned from this election that my mainstream, center-conservative political opinions and outlook aren’t mainstream. Perhaps they were when I was growing up, but clearly there is no significant constituency anymore, if ever there was, for conservatism as I imagined it – a solution of common sense and gratitude for America’s blessings coupled with a belief in the efficiency of markets, a preference for private property, a dedication to the idea of enumerated rights, limited government, and the Constitution. That was me and a handful of people on Ricochet. It wasn’t the rest of the country. There seems to be a very large constituency for authoritarian nationalism, however, and many people who have good reason to want to bet it all on an impossibly long shot or burn it all down.
The hostility Trump supporters feel for urban people — whom they call liberal elites or the GOPe or globalists — makes sense, too, looking at the numbers and the maps. But I’m not going to kid myself. These are not my familiar, fellow conservatives. They’re people who hate me because I live in the city. Their repurposed quasi-Bolshevism — elites, Establishment, globalists, cosmopolitans — frightens me: I don’t want to find out if it’s the sort that ends in exterminating the kulaks and offing everyone with eyeglasses.
The kind of conservatism I believed in may have once been a reality, or I may have been deluding myself. But my instinct for self-preservation, if nothing else, tells me it’s best to enter a defensive alliance with the decent center-left against the extremists on either side. Because there is no center-right in America anymore.
9. A response to the Flight 93 argument.
That argument has three parts, basically:
- Something is catastrophically wrong: “Only in a corrupt republic, in corrupt times, could a Trump rise. It is therefore puzzling that those most horrified by Trump are the least willing to consider the possibility that the republic is dying.”
- There is zero chance this will be reversed by the election of Hillary Clinton. “It’s absurd to assume that any of this would stop or slow—would do anything other than massively intensify—in a Hillary administration.”
- There is a non-zero chance Trumpism will work. “I mean Trumpism, broadly defined as secure borders, economic nationalism, and America-first foreign policy.”
Since we’re for sure going to die, goes the argument, we should charge the cockpit. My response also has three parts.
- I don’t know whether the Republic is dying. None of us do. It sure looks very ill, though. A lot of the vital signs look all wonky. I surely agree that only in a corrupt republic, in corrupt times, could a Trump rise.
- There is zero chance this will be reversed by the election of Donald Trump. His promises to boost American growth to the stratosphere are pure fantasy. He may truly be determined effectively to erect huge tariff walls through means well within the power of a president. This would slam the brakes on the American economy, tipping Europe back into full-blown recession, with a catastrophic effect on emerging markets and lower-income countries. States that are barely holding together now could collapse. We’d start spiraling the drain quickly, geopolitically speaking — we’re not far from it now — and Trump wouldn’t have the first clue what to do. None of it will happen the way he fantasizes, that’s for sure.
- Since we’re not dead yet, and since we’re not in fact in a plane that’s been taken over by terrorists; indeed, this is a terrible metaphor — let’s not commit suicide. If you’re determined to commit suicide and take me with you, the Flight 93 argument applies. But it doesn’t work the way you think: You’re the problem in the cockpit.
Another not at all incidental point: I found this circulating on the Internet, with no attribution; it needs editing and proofreading badly. I could make it readable in a few more days, but there’s no time. The basic argument is sound. That’s my biggest concern, and it should be yours, too.
10. A few final thoughts
In 1994, Edward Luttwak wrote Why Fascism is the Wave of the Future:
Neither the moderate Right nor the moderate Left even recognizes, let alone offers any solution for, the central problem of our days: the completely unprecedented personal economic insecurity of working people, from industrial workers and white-collar clerks to medium-high managers.
He describes a standard Republican after-dinner speech:
Part one celebrates the virtues of unimpeded competition and dynamic structural change, while part two mourns the decline of the family and community ‘values’ that were eroded precisely by the forces commended in part one.
A vast political space, he remarked, was left open by this non-sequitur.
The American Left failed to respond intelligibly to these circumstances, driving itself instead into the dead end of a species of identity politics as intellectually vapid as it was petty and parochial.
The void created by the intellectual vacuum on both the Right and Left was briefly entered, in 1992, by Ross Perot. That should have been my first hint of something deeply amiss. Trump has many forebears, of course: Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, the World Wrestling Foundation, reality TV, the Kardashians—obviously, Trump is an authentic American phenomenon.
Sarah Palin, and the cult of personality that quickly arose around her, should have been my biggest warning sign. Before Palin, and I remember this well, Republican anti-intellectualism was an affectation. Eisenhower styled himself as a friendly dope, but this was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe; he had planned and overseen the successful invasion of France and Germany from the Western front; he was the first Supreme Commander of NATO. His knowledge of national security affairs was unparalleled. Palin, however, was an authentic nitwit. I didn’t see that sign for the ominous thing it really was.
My obliviousness is no tragedy; the world does not revolve around my amour-propre. But such a deep tragedy for mankind is now well underway. Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party caps a long period of foreign policy ineptitude with the spectacle of the United States becoming ridiculous, and, because no country as powerful as the United States can be purely ridiculous, frightening. His nomination effectively declares that a significant number of Americans no longer understand or care about even giving the appearance of decency, or liberal democracy, still less in the importance of American power and dignity abroad or the role America played in the world’s imagination. If he wins, America’s reputation in the world will be shattered. No one will take America seriously as a model, as a nation that leads the free world — there will no longer, really, be a free world; there will be a world of managed democracies.
There is a special tragedy here for those of us who held ourselves to be conservatives—people who sought, literally, to conserve what we most loved and what was best and most admirable about America. It seems we were delusional. No one ever took our ideas seriously. The party of limited government, enumerated rights, private enterprise, private property, free trade, freedom of expression, sound fiscal policy, robust defense, and common sense? America as the guarantor of world order and protector of the global commons? We fantasized this conservatism into existence. The voters didn’t care about any of that. Now both major candidates advocate an extreme form of dirigisme; one is a radical trade protectionist who proposes to “take care” of everyone, no matter the cost. (Over the transom: ‘WILMINGTON, N.C. — Trump: “If a company wants to fire their worker… we will make them pay a tax of 35 percent.”‘) And his march over the GOP proves a point I’ve spent years arguing is false: that it is unprincipled, bigoted, provincial, and authoritarian — just as the Left always claimed.
I don’t think Democratic partisans are even tempted to feel vindicated, honestly. They know that at best, they’re about to inherit a bitterly divided one-party state, a terrible condition for any democracy. Hillary Clinton will be the most unpopular president ever to be elected. Trump’s supporters will be embittered. He is apt to claim voter fraud or otherwise challenge the legitimacy of the election. Congress will be close to gridlock from Day One.
At worst, he’ll be elected. Our star, as they say, which until now has shone so brightly, risks being dimmed by the most shameful and indelible of stains. It will immediately trigger a wave of global instability—one worse than anything we’ve seen in this past decade —because Trump’s promise to dismantle the American-led postwar international order seems to be one of his more pressing whims. He has now said as much many times, and he has been asked in many ways. The path from this conclusion to a nightmare of global nuclear proliferation and war is straightforward. What on earth do his supporters imagine will happen if we announce that we no longer propose to uphold our treaty commitments?
Hillary will win, barring catastrophic bad luck. But so much of the damage is done. America’s dignity has been ravaged, as has the prestige of its system of governance. Not all of the blame for this is on Trump: he’s a symptom, not the cause. But the world now knows that it can happen in America, and if it can happen so readily, no responsible leader can now repose his full confidence in American power, or the endurance of the postwar order Americans created and led.
This is why I voted for Hillary.
Postscript: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get along with Russia?” I remember those lines, actually. I heard them at a conference in a post-Soviet hellhole in, maybe, 2011? In retrospect, my interlocutors were funded by the Kremlin, I think, probably through a series of cut-outs. They thought I might be a journalist who could be useful to them at some point. I fit a profile: an American conservative who viewed our foreign policy as inept. And who needed money. This was before the rise of ISIS, so the idea was put to me more bluntly: “When is the US going to realize Russia is its ally against Islam?” I heard all the rudiments of Trump’s foreign policy vision that day. I found it interesting. This part of the world is really full of crackpots, I thought. I had no idea what significance that conversation would later acquire in my mind.