Back in 2016, a conservative speechwriter named Michael Anton wrote a famous essay:
2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.
As Rich Lowry just pointed out, this ended up right where any sane person would have expected, with Trump crashing the plane.
Kevin Drum was moved to re-read Anton's essay and consider what it said. Anton, it seems, really believed that America was going to hell, so close to complete collapse that the election of Hillary Clinton really might finish off the republic. I think this a very interesting exercise, because I often find that people panic about our political future based on strange or flimsy fears.
Here is Drum's list of the things that, Anton said, showed America was on the verge of collapse:
- Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government
- Politically correct McCarthyism
- Ever-higher taxes
- Ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure
- Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes
- A disastrously awful educational system that churns out kids who don’t know anything and, at the primary and secondary levels, can’t (or won’t) discipline disruptive punks, And, at the higher levels, saddles students with six figure debts for the privilege.
- The sacredness of mass immigration is the mystic chord that unites America’s ruling and intellectual classes.
But much of this is downright silly. Taxes in the US have been declining since 1960. Illegitimacy went up a lot from 1970 to around 2000 but has since gone down and is certainly not getting worse. Crime is down by half since the late 1980s. Our infrastructure may not have kept up with our population growth but it has not gotten worse.
Our schools have not gotten worse, and violence is schools is actually down a lot, paralleling the decline in violent crime. We do struggle to teach poor kids, but what does the president have to do with that?
Immigration has indeed changed America quite a bit since 1965, but all the evidence suggests this has made our economy more vibrant. The social ills people like Anton complain about are concentrated, not among immigrants, but among long-resident whites and blacks in pockets of rural and urban poverty. All the cities that are reducing poverty are full of immigrants.
Pulling out of wars in Afghanistan and Syria is one of the things I always agreed with Trump about, but his record in this regard is not so great. Despite his promise, there are still American soldiers in Afghanistan.
The rise of left-wing speech policing is something I have written about, and that moderates like Obama speaks about regularly, but I just can't see how college students chasing the occasional speaker off campus is going to destroy the nation.
Plus, the relationship of any of this to which party holds the White House is weak. Crime peaked under Reagan, illegitimacy under George W. Bush. The growth of government has been pretty steady, and anyway as I keep saying the most annoying bureaucracies in America are now run by corporations.
Politics is about feelings. Many people feel, in their bones or wherever, that the country is going to hell, and the other party is to blame. But the evidence that the country is going to hell is, I think, weak, and the problems I worry about don't track very well with party control.
Looking around right now, it seems to me that the biggest source of violence and chaos in America is the fear that we are sliding into violence and chaos. It's the people rushing the cockpit that are doing the real damage.
The vast majority of the 74 million who voted for Trump did so holding their collective nose. It's them and what they think that matters, and not Trump diehards. Perhaps the are looking into the future and not liking what the see -- an ascendant China, a shrinking middle class, unending racial and diversity divisions and clashes, a debt that has reached nose-bleed heights and is still exploding upwards (and one day it will matter), cold war foreign policies, economic and political policies and strategies designed more with the past in mind than the future (perhaps this is because baby boomers are still running things), and a two party system that seems antiquated and paralyzed. So what we get are more executive orders that the next president can erase with a signature.
So, while it may be true that we look good if we look at only the present, a quick look into the near future tells of a possible very different tale. And it's not just Trump acolytes who are the problem. Does anyone seriously believe Reaganomics is the solution 30 years later in the current global economy? Yet I keep hearing Reaganites yearning for a return to the good ol' days. And then there are the ones who say debt doesn't matter. Well, if debt doesn't matter, then why tax yus.? Just keep selling bonds and printing money. These people aren't any better.
No, the vast majority did not vote for Trump while holding their noses. Up to 70% or more as polls clearly indicate, knew what they voted for, and loved what they knew. They also know what they hate, and that includes liberals, activist or uppity non-white people, and foreigners.
Real, believing MAGA world is tens of millions, and its complaints are rooted in ideas and attitudes that have nothing in common with those of, if I may be so bold, John and Shadow. Take foreign policy. Yes, like John, they oppose foreign wars. Their reasons have nothing to do with John's. The reason is their deep xenophobia. They hate most foreigners, and they want a foreign policy that largely consists of the president threatening to kick foreign ass, and foreigners being duly cowed. They like military action in which, likewise, we kick foreign ass. They opposed Afghanistan and Syria because there was, in those operations, too much of protecting foreigners and not enough kicking foreign ass. And because Obama had supported one and initiated another.
Likewise, they don't look at unending racial and diversity divisions and just want peace. They want a very specific and white-centered kind of peace. They want BLM to surrender and dissolve. They want the president to make deals with rappers and not with real black politicians who have actual power. They don't want black quarterbacks, and they don't want black football players to voice black grievances. And on and on.
Literally millions of them think the biggest problem facing the country is that Joe Biden is going to suppress Christianity. Wake up.
There's a reason the people who voted for MAGA loved Desert Storm when it happened - it was "simple", it was short, it was a display of overwhelming American force strategically deployed to impose our will and values on a foreign power.
Anyone who wants proof of that need only look at media from the time - from conservative newspaper articles, to conservative talk radio programs, to the military itself playing songs like "Rock The Casbah" over the cockpit radios of fighter pilots (depite the song itself, bitterly ironically, being a punk decrial of militancy, warfare, and the use of force to impose "order" on others).
As you put it, the conservative elements of the country simply relished the idea of "kicking foreign ass". Just as we used to relish openly supporting Saddam Hussein on the grounds that he was fighting against the Iranis whom we despised; just as we used to relish openly supporting Al-Qaeda and other Mujahideens on the ground that they were fighting against the Soviets whom we despised; etc. In the history of contemporary American politics, there are only two kinds of non-white, non-Christian foreigners - useful pawns to be exploited, and unholy enemies to be eradicated. You either help us "kick ass" against other foreigners, or you get kicked yourself.
Every war since World War II has followed the same predictable patterns. When it seems like we're winning overwhelmingly, conservatives are triumphal and emboldened, even if our actions are counterproductive in the long run. And when it seems like we're losing, conservatives look for someone to blame and start pushing to "kick asses" closer to home.
'Vietnam isn't going well? Blame the damn dirty hippies! The national guard shot and killed four unarmed, peacefully protesting college students? They deserved to die, they were traitors whose dissent was an insult and a betrayal toward our brave (...unwillingly drafted...) soldiers fighting against the godless Communists in Southeast Asia! If we don't put those uppity foreigners in their place, OTHER foreigners elsewhere might get crazy ideas! The dominoes will keep toppling until it's India which goes Communist, and then the Middle East, and then Africa, and then world! It's a dangerous slippery slope!'
Evidence of this mentality is everywhere, if you only bother to look for it. It's been there for generations, repeated over and over.
Actually, although there are large numbers of ordinary Americans who think of foreign policy in the ways we are describing, and although you can probably find pockets of ordinary folks who advocated policies like supporting Saddam against Iran and supporting the mujahideen against the Soviets, I don't think those policies were really about "relish." They weren't populist in origin. The politicians and officials who advocated them were not products a United States whose foreign policy in practice was much shaped by MAGA-style populism. They were products of the official military-foreign policy complex, which thinks in a very different fashion. The same was true of Vietnam. Many ordinary Americans obviously supported the VN intervention, and by the time the war was unpopular, it's well known now that a lot of its unpopularity reflected, not anti-war sentiment, but a desire to fight the war more aggressively by bombing them into the stone age and then being done with it. But that was a populist sentiment, not one much advocated in official circles outside the Air Force (which is always anxious for bureaucratic-institutional reasons to prove that it can win a major war on its own).
I think the official pattern of thinking is what John really dislikes and distrusts, and he's willing to give kudos to Trump for bucking it. My feeling is the populist view of war and foreign policy is really much more dangerous than John allows. I'm also not averse to indefinite military commitments that don't involve any prospect of victory. I'm certainly think our deployments in Germany, Bosnia, Korea, and Japan should continue indefinitely. And I agreed with Obama on both Afghanistan and Syria, as well as Somalia and the general policy of assassinating al-Qaeda operatives. It may well be that it's time for the policies related to the War on Terror to end. But that is a judgment call, one I'm ambivalent about but not in any case inclined to moralize much about either way.
To be clear, I think the populist view of war and foreign policy is dangerous because its logical end in the current world situation, particularly under a more determined leader and especially one with significant religious commitments (as opposed to a superficial showman like Trump) is not peace, but a bombing campaign against Iran, with a nuclear strike as a real possibility.
It would not happen right away. The first step would be that the determined leader would have to transform the bureaucracy from the one that stopped Bush from a similar campaign against Iran into one that would do his bidding. The kind of right wing leader I fear would do precisely that.
If those kinds of fears make me a liberal version of Michael Anton, too bad.
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