No matter what one thinks about the rise of Donald Trump, it does make one think—or rage, in the case of our cultural and intellectual elite.
Take Washington Post regular Richard Cohen:
Donald Trump has taught me to fear my fellow American. I don’t mean the occasional yahoo who turns a Trump rally into a hate fest. I mean the ones who do nothing. Who are silent. Who look the other way. If you had told me a year ago that a hateful brat would be the presidential nominee of a major political party, I would have scoffed. Someone who denigrated women? Not possible. Someone who insulted Mexicans? No way. Someone who mocked the physically disabled? Not in America. Not in my America.
After years of dictating what constitutes “my America,” of deciding what is allowed as free speech and free exercise, the U.S. elite is having a hissy fit. Cohen is a bit more fervent than his fellows among mainstream-media progressives and neoconservative TV stars, but he expresses their torment perfectly. They can hardly come up with enough epithets.
Commenting on new polling showing that large numbers of Republicans and independents believe men and women should play different societal roles, even a thoughtful progressive like William Galston can write this about himself and his fellow liberals:
We had assumed that some beliefs had moved so far beyond the pale that those who continued to hold them would not dare to say so publicly. Mr. Trump has proved us wrong. His critique of political correctness has destroyed many taboos and has given his followers license to say what they really think.
Imagine, having the nerve to say what one really thinks in the good old USA!
The new candor in Trump’s wake has even reached progressives. Some of them told New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof what they really thought when he suggested that the lack of conservative voices on campus was leading to intellectual stagnation on the left:
I wondered aloud whether universities stigmatize conservatives and undermine intellectual diversity. The scornful reaction from my fellow liberals proved the point. “Much of the ‘conservative’ worldview consists of ideas that are known empirically to be false,” said Carmi. “The truth has a liberal slant,” wrote Michelle. “Why stop there?” asked Steven. “How about we make faculties more diverse by hiring idiots?”
It is all almost enough for a conservative to welcome Trump as the Republican nominee for president—almost. He is driving the right people crazy, and in the unlikely case he is actually elected, he might even crack their cultural monopoly over speech.
The dilemma on the conservative side is that if one does not support the comic he is stuck with the crook, or, as even Dana Milbank calls her, Hunkered Hillary. She just cannot tell the truth. She might deep down even be more conservative than Trump, but she will be pushed to the far left by the base and the cultural elite, especially if Democrats take Congress. So she will certainly move the country further down into the social and economic void, while The Donald could do anything.
So, on balance, support for the TV comedian is inevitable, even if it leads to an historic defeat. That is, if he is actually nominated at the convention, which in this crazy year is no sure thing.
But there should be no illusions. He promises not to touch insolvent Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlements. He will enhance protectionism and encourage fellow crony capitalists at the expense of markets. Given his mixed record, social conservatives would gain only by chance, having proven themselves politically powerless. Originalist judges? That is not quite what he promised. On foreign policy, he might put America first, but he also keeps threatening big guys like China and neighbors like Mexico. After Barack Obama’s use of his phone and executive-order pen, it is improbable Trump would not continue the tradition, especially with a likely Democratic Senate, becoming the Americas’ northernmost caudillo.
Well, no one is perfect.
In another sense, it makes little difference in the long run. Both candidates have promised to protect entitlements and open the spending spigots. As the indispensable Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest makes clear, debt has brought down as many civilizations as has war, indeed more in recent years.
I am the last to deny Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II credit for undermining the Soviet Union, but (with reservations on many of his other points) Robert Skidelsky’s Road from Serfdom makes a convincing case that the proximate cause was bankruptcy. Debt also had an underappreciated role in the other cultural collapses of the modern era: war reconstruction and open welfare-state spigots prepared the way for the fall of the English and French empires after World War II, and German debt and inflation prepared the way for Hitler. The same can be said for Italy on the way to Mussolini, and even for ancient Rome and Ming China.
Ferguson is most perceptive in demonstrating that the end can come quickly. In disputing Edward Gibbon’s claim of a long decline for the Roman Empire, he argues that the presumed causes—barbarian invasions, epidemics, economic crises, rival empires, and the rest—were pretty much historical norms. Ferguson puts the beginning of the end in AD 406, with the advance of the Germanic tribes across the Rhine and into Italy—which was followed by Rome’s sacking by the Goths in 410, Genseric’s conquest of North Africa’s breadbasket between 429 and 439, and the loss of Britain and most of Spain and Gaul. By 476, Rome was gone, a fiefdom of the Scirii, accomplished in a mere 70 years.
In the modern era, England and France ended World War I as victors with a large slice of the world as colonies. Thirty-eight years later, President Dwight Eisenhower blithely dismissed them as inconsequential and waved them out of Suez. The Soviet Union ended even quicker: From March 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev was appointed general secretary of the Politburo over a USSR the CIA thought richer than the U.S., to 1991, when Boris Yeltsin ended the attempted Communist Party coup, required a mere six years.
What is the situation for the U.S.? Based on Congressional Budget Office data, Ferguson estimated that U.S. debt could reach 90 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2021, 150 percent by 2031, and 300 percent in 2047. This compares with 175 percent in bankrupt Greece, and it does not include state debt or the unfunded liabilities of Medicare, Social Security, and other government (or government-insured) pensions.
In my last book, I raised a comparison between America and Weimar Germany with great trepidation, fearing to appear overly melodramatic. Now, with one U.S. political party dreaming of recreating an already-failed European democratic socialism and the other explicitly repudiating its traditional limited-government policies, that prognosis seems prophetic. As Ferguson noted, all it takes is one wild circumstance to start a run, even on the world’s only true financial power.
It could take years, but “one day a seemingly random piece of bad news, perhaps a negative report by a rating agency,” could reach beyond the experts to panic the public at large or spook investors abroad, where half of U.S. public debt resides. One-fifth is owned by a fearful China alone, which already has referred to the Federal Reserve’s “quantitative easing” as “financial protectionism.” A worldwide panic over U.S. debt would have no backstop.
In the U.S., sufficient liabilities are already on the books, and both major parties are determined not to disturb public or ideological blindness. Hillary Clinton promises more, and should the Democrats win control of Congress as well, she could easily plunge the country joyfully into bankruptcy. In the less likely case of Trump’s election, policy becomes totally subject to the leader’s whims, which almost certainly do not include austerity—so even with good appointees (he is the boss), the best one could expect would be some rearguard blocking from the House.
Traditional, limited-government conservatives would be left with the small consolations that their understanding of the fundamental weakness of human nature had proven correct, that no battle is forever won or lost, and that their ultimate goal is in another world anyway.
Trump dominates the moment, but Konrad Adenauer may be the better long-term guide for the right. The Christian Democratic legislator survived the Weimer economic crash and endured a decade in and out of jail under Hitler, after which he was still able, at age 73, to become the conservative chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany—and to serve for the next 14 years re-institutionalizing markets, sound financial policies, moral traditions, democracy, a fair and restrained judiciary, meaningful federalism, and economic prosperity.
Not a bad survival vantage point.
Donald Devine is a senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, is the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition and Constitution, and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term.