Some day a story will be told about how Americans handed power to a madman, hastening the republic’s decay and eventual demise.
The story told will be an inaccurate simplification of the complex truth about our unfolding peril. Donald Trump is indeed a madman, but his rise to power is more symptom than disease. He is a reflection of us … of the torturous journey of a nation built on the ideals of equality, representative government, and domestic tranquillity toward moral and social oblivion. A journey that has been in dangerous territory for two decades.
I was thirty before I discovered Edward Hallet Carr’s The Twenty Years Crisis. Students of International Relations or Political Science will recognize this as a fundamental text — a building block in grasping the complexities of these disciplines.
Carr’s central argument was that the world could ill afford to trust solely in institutions to keep it safe, particularly to the extent those institutions failed to take notice of intractable human behaviors such as competition and survival, which could be counted upon to manifest themselves at state level.
But where Carr wowed me was in his closing. He finished his work in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War Two, writing in its shadow, and arrived at the then-novel conclusion that peace depended as much on morality as it depended on the structure of the world order. His closing thoughts shift The Twenty Years Crisis from a detached study of political reality to an urgent, unanswered plea for how to respond to the swift and frightful movement of extremism into the political mainstream.
Eight decades later, we once again see extremism moving into the mainstream. This time, it ascends within the most powerful society on Earth, paralleled to varying degree in other societies but most concentrated and relentless in America.
The questions Carr grappled with at interstate level eighty years ago are now relevant within the American state, where the culmination of two decades of accelerating political entropy is fostering widespread distrust, apathy, and insecurity. This political crisis is fuelled by seething societal undercurrents, and they all have their wellsprings in the curious events in the 1990s.
Assumed dishonesty from politicians has always been a subtext of the national discourse, but two decades ago it became the headline. Republicans unhappy with the election and re-election of Bill Clinton decided that if they could not beat him fair and square, they would hunt him with the official tools of government. An independent counsel investigation eventually turned over sufficient evidence to have Clinton impeached, mainly on the basis that he lied about having sexual relations with a White House intern.
Republicans saw the whole episode as vindication — political punishment meted out deservedly to a lying and immoral politico who had demagogued his way to office. They had a point. Clinton was not a moral man, and it said something about us that we elected him anyway.
Democrats saw it as a dishonest exercise of power … an attempt to end-run the electoral process by staining and attempting to unseat a President over character flaws that the electorate had understood and accepted when they put him in office. They also had a point, underscored in the years since by the exposure of moral hypocrisy on the part of Clinton’s political opponents.
Rank and file Americans had their opinions, but they were mainly just entertained. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal entrenched the 24-hour news cycle that had been birthed by the O.J. Simpson trial.
Every new detail of the hunting of Clinton was obsessively reported and picked apart. Every word subject to slow-motion replay with talking heads narrating each frame. Clinton’s impeachment got Americans eating out of the hand of cable news outlets, the realization slowly dawning that we were all being commoditized as pawns in the pursuit of ad revenue.
As that realization dawned, an anti-media backlash was gradually springloaded. It manifests today as a general distrust of media. Americans continue to consume epic proportions of entertainment posing as news, even as they bemoan its lack of veracity.
When enough people decide there are no truly trustworthy sources of information, it becomes very hard to know who or what to believe. When truth is no longer demonstrable enough to foster consensus, the circumstances are ripe for an authority figure to seize on that doubt by presenting claimed truths which confirm what the doubting masses want to believe.
In the same twenty year period, partisan political gridlock has become an accepted assumption. Americans are numb to it.
The Republican response to the Clinton political platform was to ramp up the uses of legislative obstruction and opposition research to intensities not seen since the middle of the nineteenth century. Democrats soon answered in kind, creating a competitive spiral oriented on point-scoring rather than the national interest.
Politics has become war by other means. Fighting is the sought-after end rather than the means to a valid end. This is part and parcel of a two-party system happy to quarrel with itself in lieu of governing … because of a system of laws and customs that create a strong interest in perpetual political warfare. Such laws are held safe by those in power, who benefit from the political chaos which flows from their inefficacy.
In recent years, the parties have crossed the political Rubicon, using official power to gerrymander, stack the courts, rig elections, and to hunt adversaries with the tools of criminal law enforcement. Both parties have forsaken previously sacred unwritten rules, most notably the prohibition on partisan bickering beyond the nation’s shores. America’s foreign affairs have become just another forum for unhealthy partisanship. We now expose our internal disunity to the world, emboldening adversaries and calling war closer.
This stubborn departure from stable political behavior is engendering a broad and deep-set loss of confidence in government. Beyond that, a resentment of government is inflating numbers in extremist groups bent on radically changing it. The environment is susceptible to a purported political savior to come along and restore order.
Political correctness isn’t helping matters. Traditional American values are being actively assailed by the far-left, seemingly confirming the worst fears among traditional conservatives about what the liberal order will do with power if not fervently resisted.
Equality and tolerance are unquestionably reverent values, but when they are carried to extremes that result in the pre-conviction of men who glance friskily at their female counterparts from across a crowded room, we’ve gone too far.
When ordinary people feel vilified for rendering matter-of-fact descriptions of the stupidity they see in everyday life, they will fight back at the ballot box. They will froth with glee at the validation of their fears by far-right radio entertainers and Fake News personalities — professional malcontents who profit by feeding negativity, stoking insecurity, and sowing distrust.
The rise of every fascist movement, after all, has been shepherded by professional misinformers. People like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh who make millions by sniffing out the seething hate just beneath the societal surface and expertly tapping into it.
When the use of the wrong pronoun in common conversation is seen somehow as a micro-aggressive tool of macro-oppression, the acknowledgement of mass madness is soon to follow. America’s loss of common sense and the withering of its thick skin are, ironically, primary factors in its loss of common ground and durability as a society.
Everyone needs to grow up, toughen up, and remember we didn’t build the most powerful nation the world has ever known by lurching proactively to make victims of ourselves, constantly grasping to be offended by something.
But then again, our core problem is self-obsession. We’ve become a nation of Vegas party animals … self-serving individuals engaging almost exclusively in value-maximizing behavior without reference to community, common interest, or common morality.
Our current political hero is a serial philanderer, pathological liar, and known swindler. He clearly lacks even basic decency and is a man of low character. Rather than reject him, we celebrate him as something wholly American. We’re actually proud of our abandonment of right-and-wrong as a valid lens through which to view our society and ourselves.
The broad proliferation of self-interest means that more and more of the people we elect to political office are themselves self-obsessed, and self-obsession with access to power leads to self-glorification. This sets off a backlash from those who believe community still plays a role in our society (or should), which in turn sets off a counter-backlash from those who value rugged individualism as an American ethos and don’t want to be told they have to share or sacrifice.
In a free society, this leads to anarchy. Take a look around … we are nearly there.
And what comes from anarchy? Eventually, the restoration of order, usually brought about by the rise of a skilled power broker.
Donald Trump is the engineer, opportunist, and beneficiary in America’s ongoing slide toward anarchy, and given his reverence for Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, he clearly has some ideas about how he will restore order if given free rein.
With his speech and his conduct, Trump is already crafting a narrative of fear and putting the smell of blood in the air. He frames his adversaries as criminals, aliens, rapists, and threats to the nation. He’s hewing a dark talisman of dehumanization which he’ll eventually attempt to wield in unifying an extremist movement bent on replacing the current political system with one more to his liking.
This will be dismissed by many as liberal histrionics. But we will know the fascist moment is upon us when clear evidence of Trump’s collusion with Russia to rig the 2016 election emerges, and yet he is not held accountable. This will make the mass gutlessness of self-interested politicians undeniable and bring about the final and total loss of respect for government and institutions.
When an election can be stolen and the thief is permitted to keep his quarry, the system is admitting openly that it is broken and not worth preserving. Upheaval becomes inevitable. People with no confidence in government will instead entrust power to individual authority figures who present themselves as trustworthy guardians of traditional values. This is a malignant populism that inevitably devolves into a cult.
This doesn’t mean America is headed for a catastrophic collapse. The sort of fascism more likely to unfold in such a fundamentally ungovernable nation is subtler and less coherent than Nazism.
But while history seldom repeats itself, it does rhyme. Political stagnation gives way to legislative extremism, which can be held safe from judicial review given the seating of a politically pliable court. The center doesn’t hold but gives way gradually, and things fall apart slowly. The frog boils one degree at a time. One day we wake up and we’re a radically different society than the one we set out to be.
When that day comes, it won’t be simply because a madman arrived at an opportune moment. It will be because our politics came to resemble our national character. Selfish, narrow, quarrelsome, petty, drunken, and eventually given to the use of violence as a way to deal with disagreement.
If the point of government is to lift man from his naturally anarchic state and provide civilization, it cannot be built in a way that too accurately reflects or too readily channels those primal behaviors of competition, survival, and individuality.
This was Edward Hallet Carr’s proposition on the eve of World War Two. He was onto something, and it’s worth revisiting. The past twenty years have shown us that we’re a nation with a character problem, and that our political system is reflecting our moral deterioration just a bit too much.
We’ve spent the past twenty years brewing up a toxic stew. Donald Trump is stirring the cauldron and doing his best to boil it over, but make no mistake … this is a mess of our own making.
Tony Carr is an American manager, veteran, and strategist. He is a former combat pilot and squadron commander with an M.A. from George Washington University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Tony writes from Manchester, United Kingdom.