A very lengthy article (dare I say rumination) wrapping up the last five years, and bemoaning the future world order. Don’t think of it as a blog post. Think of it as a feature-length essay in The Atlantic, or some such. Or just give it a pass. I write these things mainly for the catharsis!
I’ve written about this before: that queasy feeling that the geopolitical plates aren’t just shifting, but have already shifted. It comes over me repeatedly these days. I remember one of the first bouts, a few years ago, just after Trump was elected, when I was watching some sort of action thriller in the wee hours, something cheesy like Olympus Has Fallen – such stuff sometimes seems the best non-chemical way to cure insomnia – when the typical aerial shot of the Washington Mall appeared on screen. For all my life, that image has served as universal cinematic shorthand for ultimate global political, economic, and military supremacy, as would an aerial shot of the Colosseum in a swords and sandals epic set in Ancient Rome. Behold the epicentre of geopolitical hegemony. The uneasy thought occurred to me: what if that stock shot just doesn’t work any more? What if it connotes not power, but weakness, corruption and decay? Worse: is it not just American power that’s on the wane, but the whole idea of America itself?
Let’s take stock.
Eight months after the election, and going on six months since the January 6 insurrection, the “stop the steal” narrative is still being hollered from every GOP rooftop, with polls showing that as many as 70% of all self-identified Republican voters believing that Joe Biden’s presidency is a product of election fraud.
The painful farce of the sham Arizona “fraudit” continues at its glacial pace, while we wait for the hand-picked conspiracy theorists of the so-called Cyber Ninjas commando squad to trumpet proof, whether in the form of trace amounts of bamboo, barely discernible”kinetic artifacts”, or some such other shit, that the vote in Maricopa County was rigged. Several other states seem primed to board the bandwagon, itching to initiate a similarly ham-fisted process that ignores all protocols for a proper recount, compromises both the ballots and the associated voting machines, and, incidentally, violates federal election laws.
The voter suppression effort continues apace, with draconian laws already in place in Georgia, Florida, Arizona, Montana, Utah, Oklahoma, Kansas, and progressing at last count through the legislatures of eighteen others, with close to 400 bills introduced across the US, each overtly designed to thwart minorities and other Democratic demographics from voting. In Texas, a desperate procedural rearguard action by Democrats in the legislature has stopped the worst of them from becoming law, for now, but nothing can fend it off indefinitely. The most frightening aspect of these bills is not their many measures to curtail voting, but the power they grant to partisan operatives to overturn the results of elections if the Republicans don’t like the outcomes, thus skirting the obstacles presented in 2020 by honest civil servants and Secretaries of State. Had these laws been in place last time, Trump would probably be President today. Today’s map:
Of course, it’s insufficiently repressive merely to deny access to the ballot box, and overrule the votes of those who manage to somehow cast their ballots. It’s necessary as well to stifle all protest, a project that Republican legislatures are engaged in all across the nation, using the supposed violence of last summer’s demonstrations against police brutality as the excuse. Look:
Most of the new laws impose severe penalties for engaging in any sort of street protest, and allow police to detain even peaceful protestors and uninvolved bystanders. Some, like the especially heinous one now signed into law in Florida, even relieve drivers of civil liability if they decide to run people over who’re blocking the thoroughfare. All of this obviously contravenes the First Amendment, but that’s why Mitch stacked the courts.
In the Senate, McConnell has blocked a bi-partisan bill, which already cleared the House with 35 Republican votes despite a furious effort by Minority Leader McCarthy to whip votes against it, to establish a neutral panel of non-partisan experts to look into the causes of the January 6 insurrection, and the failures of intelligence and law enforcement that led to the sacking of the Capitol. The GOP line continues to be that the event either wasn’t so bad, was actually a left-wing false flag operation by BLM and Antifa, or didn’t happen at all. The bill lost by a vote of 54-35 – with 35 carrying the day – because:
Joe Manchin and Kristen Sinema continue to insist that the filibuster cannot be put out of our misery, meaning the GOP will have a minority veto over anything the Dems might do to stop them, or get some other legislation passed down the road. Manchin, vowing to do nothing as he watches the Republicans dismantle the American democratic system, tells reporters he won’t be the one to “destroy democracy”. The For the People Act, the one possible vaccination against the Republican State-level pathogen of voter suppression, is therefore dead on arrival.
Among self-identified Republicans, belief in the QAnon alternate universe has reached such a level that the true believers are no longer merely a cult, but a key constituency to be courted by deeply cynical GOP politicians.
Meanwhile, Trump surrogates like loony lawyer Sydney Powell and crazed ex-General Michael Flynn are running around right wing media insisting that Trump should be “reinstated”, Flynn agreeing at a public event that there ought to be a military coup like the one that saw a genocidal junta seize control of Myanmar (or “Minamar”, as the proud ex-Marine making the suggestion at Flynn’s gab session put it). Maggie Haberman of the Times, buttressed now by stories in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, reports that Trump is telling confidants that he expects to be back in the White House by August.
Then there’s this:
How dire is all this? Pretty fucking dire. I’m with this woman, whose amazing, utterly admirable rant ought to be required viewing:
With Donald and others predicting some sort of extra-constitutional reinstatement in August – some in the QAnon faction think Congress somehow has the power to undo the last election, some think the military will do the deed – the stage is set for another flare-up of violence in what might fairly be described as an ongoing coup attempt. Thus the gloomy prediction, voiced in this space and many others, that the electoral defeat of Trump would by no means spell the end of Trumpism, seems to have been borne out in spades, not that it took Nostradamus to see this coming. Still we ask the stunned questions. How is this possible? And what next? Is American democracy not merely imperilled, but on its last legs? What does that mean for the rest of us out here?
Well, it might mean big changes, in ways almost too numerous, and too extensive, to fully anticipate.
We take it for granted these days, and might not even fully realize it any more, but we all live in the world the United States built for itself. All of us have grown up in an international environment that America designed in the aftermath of World War II, characterized by what we in the political science community, back when I belonged, always referred to as “the rules-based international order”. As American power reached its pinnacle, intellectual giants like Marshall, Acheson, and Kennan, working under the astute leadership of Harry Truman, ensured that the globe wasn’t just going to operate under a set of rules and norms, it would operate in the international realm largely under Western, capitalist, liberal democratic rules and norms. Institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and military alliances that spanned the entire planet, would undergird a system consonant with Western liberal democratic values, buttressed by international agreements like The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the status of the US Dollar as the world reserve currency, and America’s vast military and economic power. Nations could opt out, as China did for much of the post-war period, or try to assemble their own equivalent transnational systems, as did the Soviet Union, but if you wanted to play in the big leagues, you had to do it on America’s terms. So it went for decades, and to a large extent, still goes today, supported most of the way by what was once broad bi-partisan policy consensus; as administrations came and went, US foreign policy remained grounded in a set of bedrock principles that nobody questioned. If you were running the Soviet Union, it didn’t make much difference whether it was Republican Dwight Eisenhower or Democrat Jack Kennedy in the White House. America’s global posture wouldn’t change appreciably. Americans might have their political battles at home, but a united front faced the rest of the world.
That was a nice world to live in – nice for us and America’s other allies, at any rate.
It’s nowadays hard to believe that the continued global supremacy of the United States still seemed like a sure thing, likely to persist throughout the 21st Century, as recently as 20 years ago. Remember those heady days at the dawn of the new millennium? Everything seemed to be breaking our way. America’s sole geopolitical rival, the Soviet Union, had collapsed, leaving the US as the world’s only superpower. An attempt by Iraq to seize Kuwait (and perhaps eventually Saudi Arabia), and thus control a huge share of the crucial oil resources of the Middle East, was thwarted by an overwhelming display of military power and technological prowess in the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s apparently formidable forces swept aside by a massive application of air power and a blitzkrieg campaign on the ground that lasted only 100 hours. At home, American finances were in great shape, the federal budget running not deficits, but surpluses in the hundreds of billions. The economy boomed. In the last years of the 20th Century, the Clinton Administration created something on the order of 23 million new jobs. There was talk of eliminating the national debt – not the annual deficit, but the entirety of the accumulated debt. Democracy seemed to be winning the global contest of ideologies. As talk of the “end of history” started to circulate, and conservative think tanks like the Project for a New American Century made plans for world domination, the word “superpower” didn’t seem to capture it. The world was unipolar; America was a hyperpower; everything was stable, amenable to our way of thinking, and destined to stay that way into the foreseeable future.
Now look. Just look at the wreckage. Of course, the unipolar world was never going to last forever. History hadn’t ended; the rules of geopolitics hadn’t changed; in due course, new rivals in the international sphere were bound to emerge, and old ones were sure to bounce back. What we’ve seen, though, is not merely a relative decline in the hegemonic power enjoyed by a still thriving Great Nation. The decline, rather, appears absolute. With the race back on, America seems like a scratched and dented older model Indy car that’s smoking, leaking fuel, and shedding parts as it limps towards the pit, while shiny state-of-the-art machines speed right on by. It isn’t just that America under Trump became a feckless and unreliable actor on the world stage, hostile to old allies, friendly to old enemies, its alliances in tatters and its influence waning. The United States was growing weaker as a society, divided, its politics and finances in disarray, its government institutions incapable of coherent policy at home or abroad. A nation that dysfunctional simply cannot maintain primacy in world affairs.
So what happened? As a former poli-sci wonk trained in academia, I suppose I ought to say something noncommittal but apparently sage like “it’s complicated”, but really it isn’t. Republicans happened. Truly, it’s that frigging simple. A peculiar strain of radical right wing thinking, anything but “conservative” by any reasonable definition of the word, took root in the GOP and grew until nothing was left but culture war, fear of The Other, atavistic terror at America’s changing demographic make-up, and a nasty suspicion, solidifying eventually into an unspoken dogma, that democracy is no longer a viable system of national governance, at least not the sort of democracy that extends the franchise to non-whites, recent immigrants, the young, and other liberal types who vote Democrat (i.e., against White interest). Today’s GOP doesn’t even have a policy agenda, foreign or domestic – there was literally no platform advanced prior to the 2020 election – the only purpose of holding power being the perpetuation of the hold on power. This is a transformation, I’ve always argued, that began long before Trump came along to mount his hostile takeover and turn the Republican Party into a cult of personality.
But when? Reasonable people can disagree. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, convinced that future historians will be doing the same. Where did the rot start? When was the tipping point?
Do we trace it back to Reagan, who moved American political culture to the right, apparently permanently, which set off a chain reaction of events that nobody could have anticipated, especially when the focus at the time was to bolster American power and reassert American influence on the global stage? Was it later, during the Clinton years, when Newt Gingrich brought his scorched earth politics to town, and turned public policy into an unending game of chicken in which it was even possible for the entire US Government to shut down? Was it earlier than all of that, when Nixon and his henchmen made the Presidency seem like little more than a criminal enterprise? Or later on, when the Tea Party and Mitch McConnell emerged to put an effective end to the Obama Presidency only two years into its eight year run?
My own view is that the crucial turning point for America, and therefore not just for its own domestic politics but the entire post-war system of international relations, arrived when the Supreme Court handed the presidency to George W. Bush. For me, that’s the fulcrum point; that’s when the train leapt suddenly off track and plunged over the cliff edge. To see it my way, admittedly, it’s necessary to view the entire eight years of the Obama presidency as merely a blip, an interlude during which some of the worst possibilities inherent in the GOP’s evolution were fended off for a time, at the cost of spawning a vehement White backlash, but you know, actually, that’s just exactly how I see it. I believe the die was cast when W. found himself sitting behind the Resolute Desk, despite losing the popular vote, courtesy of his pals on SCOTUS. From that moment onward, the toxicity and rank incompetence of Republican rule began to blight the American scene like never before, and everything, on every front, started to go wrong, with the attacks on 9/11 providing the catalyst. From that point, the GOP expanded its repertoire beyond Lee Atwater-style dirty tricks and Gingrich-inspired obstructionism to embrace outright lies on an epic scale, and a new appetite for authoritarianism, starting with the Patriot Act and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and ramping up with the entirely fictitious propaganda about weapons of mass destruction that facilitated the unnecessary and ruinous invasion of Iraq, a calamity the ugly effects of which we are still feeling today. Government still worked for a while, because Democrats in Congress were apt to cooperate with the Republican President, giving him his wars and his tax cuts and his judges. Still, the radical transformation away from the party that W’s own father had once helmed began, then accelerated, until by the time Obama gained office the nation was confronted by a new party where the old GOP used to sit, determined to do nothing except turn back the clock, eradicate the New Deal, and obstruct any liberal project any Democrat might propose.
I often wonder how different the world would be today, if Gore had won instead of Bush. It would be better, I think.
Mind you, deciding when, exactly, everything started to go straight to Hell is not quite the same thing as assessing blame. Arguably, a lot of what went wrong on W’s watch was not entirely his fault, and some of it perhaps wasn’t his fault at all. For example, 9/11 might be the obvious inflection point, but it’s impossible to conclude that Al Gore’s administration would have done something Bush’s didn’t to thwart the attacks that day, even though it’s without question that Bush and his team took the well-understood threat posed by Al Qaeda far less seriously than Clinton did, and than Gore would have. Somehow, W. seemed not to grasp it. One can’t help but remember with regret and some bitterness the contents of the infamous President’s Daily Brief, delivered to Bush 35 days in advance of the attacks – would Gore have shrugged off this intelligence the way Bush did?
Most haunting are the concluding paragraphs:
It’s hard to say what Gore might have done with this intelligence assessment, or indeed what was even possible in the scant 35 days that remained before the strikes. However, it’s safe to assume that in the wake of this report, and subsequent reports stressing that the threat was real, he wouldn’t have supplied the response Bush did: “All right, you’ve covered your ass”. Thus it remains a tantalizing counter-factual fantasy: what if 9/11 hadn’t happened? What if airport security, hurriedly beefed up in response to the intelligence findings, with everybody on the lookout for suspicious characters, had stopped the hijackers at the gates?
What if none of us ever heard of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden? Would a disastrous chain of causation have been broken?
And what if the global economic collapse hadn’t occurred? Again, it’s not really fair to lay the 2008 financial meltdown, a crucial impetus to the rise of the radicalized Tea Party and all that followed, entirely on Bush’s doorstep. Yes, during his tenure, critical signs were ignored and dire warnings went unheeded. Yet the process of deregulation that led to the catastrophe was well advanced by the time he assumed office, and had been abetted by Clinton to pretty much the same extent as Reagan, everybody drinking Alan Greenspan’s toxic Kool-Aid. The repeal of crucial legislative guardrails was already a done deal when W. took charge – Glass-Steagall was gone by 1999. True, the philosophy that nearly landed us in a global economic extinction event was, in it’s origins, quintessentially right wing Republican Kool-Aid, the legacy of Ronald Reagan and the blinkered free-market extremists who goaded him on. But by the time W. was sitting in the Oval, the crazed notion that the freebooting buccaneers of Wall Street could be trusted to govern themselves according to the immutable self-stabilizing laws of the free market was well entrenched, and virtually beyond debate in policy circles. This despite all the lessons of history.
What is fair to blame on Bush and his many right-wing enablers, unequivocally, are the hubris and outrageous lies that led to the geopolitically disastrous and almost insanely misguided attempt to reshape by conquest large swaths of the Middle East. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will, I predict, be cited by historians as the beginning of the long slide to the end of American global pre-eminence, and not merely as epic foreign policy blunders in the same class as the war in Viet Nam. Nothing illustrated the limits of American national power, and the inability to effect desired political outcomes by military means, better than the horrific messes left smouldering in the wake of these interventions, with Iraq half destroyed and falling slowly under Iranian control, and the US military, after 20 long years of warfare, departing Afghanistan with its tail between its legs, ceding the battlefield to the Taliban. They leave behind only wreckage, societies perhaps even more broken and dysfunctional than they found them, thousands upon thousands of graves, and a shattered mythology. Along the way, the Bush era policy mavens horrified America’s democratic allies with the sad spectacle of what amounted to a gulag in Cuba, and a protracted program of illegal torture and extra-judicial “extraordinary renditions” to foreign black sites in places like Thailand, where the dirty work could be kept out of sight. Many are now serving on corporate boards and raking in speaking fees who ought to be stored safely behind bars.
By the time Bush was done, I’d argue, America’s wings were clipped (perhaps partly a good thing in the short run, if US leaders lost their taste for disastrous foreign adventures, but bad for the rest of us in the long run). The Republican Party, buffeted by a new mood of isolationism that spread through its base, largely turned its back on all the think tanks and hardliners who’d advocated what turned out to be endless un-winnable wars, and focussed instead upon what their voters now wanted: securing White minority rule and fighting the good fight against all the societal trends that were making America look and sound less and less like somewhere Ward and June Cleaver would have wanted to put down roots. You could write a book about how this sea-change came about (and come to think of it, somebody somewhere must have, right?): how Tea Party rage against the Wall Street bailout turned into a general anti-government narrative within which ordinary Americans were cast aside, left un-helped and holding the bag (to which there was more than a little truth), and the incoherent, often non-specific rage this fostered; how the failed wars abroad soured regular Americans against an outward-looking, activist foreign policy; how White reaction to a person of colour becoming President turned into something akin to paranoia about Caucasians being replaced as the dominant force within American society; how policies promoted by Republicans, which made the rich richer while creating a wealth gap between the 1% and the stagnating middle class that approached levels not seen since the Gilded Age, again bred sometimes non-specific, inarticulate, and often mis-directed anger and resentment; how the disappearance of good, unionized manufacturing jobs, partly as a result of neo-liberal trade policy but largely the product of robotics, further stoked anger, despair, and the search for scapegoats; how generally there was a deterioration in confidence that a federal government in the pocket of lobbyists, and the super-rich paymasters who poured dark money into the PACs, had anything to do with improving anybody’s lives outside of the narrow (and narrowing) upper classes, or indeed with governing at all; a host of dangerous trends and philosophies coalesced, tempting one to employ the now hackneyed description of “a perfect storm”.
Having encouraged and even caused the bulk of this, Republicans decided to exploit it. They began to pander towards the resentment, the suspicion, the isolationism, the racial insecurity, and the outright hatred. It sold. It worked. During the Obama administration, this involved opposition to every single Democratic initiative, while demonizing and vowing to repeal (or failing that, challenge in the courts) anything, like Obamacare, that managed somehow to squeak past and become law. Because it was in the interests of the Big Money donors who funded their political campaigns, Republican politicians became champions of science denial (especially the science of climate change), and, ultimately, of facts altogether. Because it suited the Evangelicals who formed a crucial GOP voting block, it became expedient to do whatever the purported Christians pleased, and what pleased them was the denial of female reproductive rights, in response to which overturning Roe v. Wade became a Republican obsession. Since White America was afraid of being replaced, having been convinced (wrongly) that political systems and economies are always zero-sum games, Republicans became the anti-immigrant, anti-minority party. Keen to exploit wedge issues, they busied themselves making everything about culture wars and bitterness about political correctness. Meanwhile, they smirked and abetted the conspiracy theory that Obama wasn’t a legitimate President, having been born in Kenya. He was Muslim too, God save us.
In hindsight, the stage was so thoroughly set for somebody like Trump that The Donald became almost an inevitability – you could say that he needed merely to pick the crown up out of the gutter. Though obviously an absurdly low-information idiot, Trump was a strangely high-functioning idiot, with a born grifter’s ability to sniff out what the customer wanted and exploit the hell out of the ignorance and gullibility of his audience. He saw that the GOP had already all but destroyed its former self, and that its voters, disillusioned, had long since lost all interest in the old pro-business/anti-tax/hawkish foreign policy tenets of the so-called Party of Lincoln. All they wanted now was more of what the Republicans themselves had conditioned them to crave. They wanted their politicians to hate who they hated. They wanted their leaders to fight to preserve their privilege. They wanted to win the zero-sum game. They got a taste of what they were looking for with Sarah Palin, and Trump, doubtless inspired by the frenzy the erstwhile Alaskan nobody was able to stir up with her folksy aw-shucks politics of grievance and “owning the libs”, now stepped in to cater to all their dirtiest little desires. If it took a little hush money here, a little collusion with Russian spooks there, so be it. It’s politics. Gotta win. And he did win, sort of. Like W. before him, he took the prize while losing the popular vote, with thanks to the Electoral College.
So (and I guess this is obvious to those who just lived through it, but anyway), the GOP, post-Obama, morphed from the opposition Party of No into the governing Party of Nothing. Well, not quite nothing; as a sop to the plutocrats who paid the bills, the Republican Congress still focused on cutting taxes on the wealthy, and eliminating the last vestiges of regulations that vexed their paymasters in the oligarchy. Other than that the only real policy, once the last stabs at eradicating Obamacare petered out, was staying in power and sticking it to everybody The Base despised. This meant stifling minorities, resisting immigration, and fostering bigotry and racial grievance. It meant constant political crisis, deadlock, and controversy, combined with strenuous exertions to keep the country divided, with its people riven by faction, full of mutual loathing, and generally at each other’s throats. It meant, of course, continuing to give the Evangelicals whatever they wanted – and that meant stacking the courts with right wing ideologues who would overturn Roe v. Wade, so stacked the courts became. It meant a lot of vile and overheated rhetoric, a fictional 2,000 mile-long wall, government shut-downs, cruel and racist policies at the border, and a program of blocking everything that came out of the House once it flipped to the Dems after the 2018 mid-terms. On Trump’s part, it meant unprecedented corruption and undermining of the rule of law, the better to retain office and keep lining his own pockets. That’s about it.
Maybe it all would have worked if it wasn’t for the pandemic.
Which brings us back to the stock-taking we began with above. As Trump’s 2020 election loss began to look inevitable, a new strategy emerged, and now the Republicans from Trump on down are perpetuating the lie that the election was stolen by fraudulent voting in a vast conspiracy involving electronic machine tampering and nebulous foreign actors from Venezuela and elsewhere, a pernicious and extremely dangerous fiction that led to an armed insurrection openly incited by the soon to be ex-President. All the while they’ve been assisted by the relentless propaganda pouring out of the Murdoch media empire, while at the State level they continue to gerrymander the living daylights out of as many districts as they can, while implementing voter suppression legislation on a scale not seen since Jim Crow. The strategy seems to be working. At the time of writing, American democracy itself looks to be threatened, maybe even on life support, while a thoroughly deranged GOP does everything it can to stop President Biden from doing anything to address the nation’s numerous crises, amid scheming to retake power as soon as possible. The Party of No is back, biding its time, waiting to regain control. The endgame seems to be an authoritarian plutocracy run by superannuated white men dwelling on huge estates behind stout steel gates. Does anybody doubt they can pull it off? Is anybody prepared at this point to bet that the Mad Orange Monster of Mar-a-Lago won’t be back?
This all has implications that stretch far beyond America’s shores, because the current Republican program is most emphatically not a recipe for sustaining international power and prestige. Quite the opposite. What Americans seem never to understand is that the only power that really matters, the power that enables meaningful dominance, is soft power, the power of persuasion, example, and aspiration. A nation becomes a world leader when others want to join it in alliances, enter into its treaty arrangements, trade with it, buy its goods, use its currency, absorb its popular culture, rely on it in times of crisis, send its best and brightest to learn at its universities, and leave their own troubled lands to lead a better life in its society of opportunity. Soft power accumulates when diverse peoples all over the world want to replicate your political institutions, emulate your economic system, listen to your music, watch your TV and movies, eat your food, speak your language, and even rally to your aid in time of crisis. It’s the power that comes from others wanting to seek your protection, confident that you’ll deploy your might to protect them if powerful and unprincipled enemies are a threat. It’s what comes from like-minded nations having confidence in your judgment, and believing that you’ll use your might responsibly, in the interest of shared values. It grows out of admiration and respect, and it’s entirely about character, behaviour, and the attractiveness of your culture. Compared to all that, the mere ability to smash things with smart munitions is of far less consequence, just one element in the mix, and one that in fact only grows out of the knock-on benefits of soft power: the booming economy, steady population growth, productivity growth, expansion of the middle class, and so on. That’s what comes of being at the hub of international commerce and investment, of being the arbiter of popular and political culture, and therefore in a position to set the rules. It’s where you end up, too, when your society serves as a magnet for talent of all kinds, especially scientific talent – the mind boggles at the steady stream of breakthroughs and technological innovations that’s flowed out of America over the past century.
That’s what makes a nation mighty. And that’s what America is losing. Its soft power is evaporating, and it’s quite possible now that everything else will soon go along with it, as the rest of the world loses faith in the United States and begins to look elsewhere for somebody to fill the emerging geopolitical vacuum. Former Obama era Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes puts it eloquently in his new book, After the Fall, relating first hand experience:
As I traveled outside the country, I saw what was happening at home was leading others to reassess America itself. Shortly before my session with the House Intelligence Committee, I traveled to Tokyo to give a talk on foreign policy. I sat in a windowless room in the hotel’s conference area, flanked at a horseshoe arrangement by the vice-presidents of major Japanese corporations. Tensions were particularly high with Japan’s nuclear-armed neighbour, North Korea, so I expected their questions to be about that. Instead, they asked what had happened that summer in Charlottesville, Virginia. Who were the people marching through the streets? Why had Trump said there were good people on both sides? What they were really asking, I sensed, was a more fundamental question: Is that you? Is that America? These men lived in cold reality, numbers on a balance sheet. They couldn’t indulge an America that was experimenting with Insanity. We shaped the culture of international business that led us to be sitting there, wearing business suits, in a hotel conference room that could have been anywhere. They could tolerate acts of temporary insanity – the invasion of Iraq for instance. They could weather the results of our excesses – the financial crisis, for instance. But they couldn’t gamble on a country that had elevated someone like Trump, who praised fascists marching in the streets and steered the national discourse into the depths of conspiracy theory. That was more dangerous than North Korea, and nothing I could say was going to convince them otherwise.
Four years of Trump were all it took to convince the rest of the world that it’s looking like time to move on. Yes, Biden is in power now, but for how long, and anyway who can ever rely again upon a country that’s shown itself capable of installing a walking dumpster fire like Donald into power? The treaties he walked away from, the allies he denigrated and betrayed, the dictators and foreign potentates he coddled, the times he was duped and led around by his nose ring by anybody who flattered his boundless ego, all had their corrosive effect, far beyond anything that even the most pessimistic among us could have anticipated. No nation that puts anybody like Trump in charge can ever be trusted or taken seriously again, at least, not for a long, long time, and only if it never happens again.
Meanwhile, the MAGAverse eagerly anticipates the return of this – this thing to the Oval, and contemplates violence and insurrection to make it so:
I suppose the matter’s not settled yet. I guess there’s still hope.
I just don’t feel it.