America is in crisis. It is a crisis of greater magnitude than any the country has faced in its history, with the exception of the Civil War. It is a crisis long in the making—and likely to be with us long into the future. It is a crisis so thoroughly rooted in the American polity that it’s difficult to see how it can be resolved in any kind of smooth or even peaceful way. Looking to the future from this particular point in time, just about every possible course of action appears certain to deepen the crisis.
What is it? Some believe it stems specifically from the election of Donald Trump, a man supremely unfit for the presidency, and will abate when he can be removed from office. These people are right about one thing: Trump is supremely unfit for his White House job. But that isn’t the central crisis; it is merely a symptom of it, though it seems increasingly to be reaching crisis proportions of its own.
When a man as uncouth and reckless as Trump becomes president by running against the nation’s elites, it’s a strong signal that the elites are the problem. We’re talking here about the elites of both parties. Think of those who gave the country Hillary Clinton as the Democratic presidential nominee—a woman who sought to avoid accountability as secretary of state by employing a private email server, contrary to propriety and good sense; who attached herself to a vast nonprofit “good works” institution that actually was a corrupt political machine designed to get the Clintons back into the White House while making them rich; who ran for president, and almost won, without addressing the fundamental problems of the nation and while denigrating large numbers of frustrated and beleaguered Americans as “deplorables.” The unseemliness in all this was out in plain sight for everyone to see, and yet Democratic elites blithely went about the task of awarding her the nomination, even to the point of employing underhanded techniques to thwart an upstart challenger who was connecting more effectively with Democratic voters.
At least Republican elites resisted the emergence of Trump for as long as they could. Some even attacked him vociferously. But, unlike in the Democratic Party, the Republican candidate who most effectively captured the underlying sentiment of GOP voters ended up with the nomination. The Republican elites had to give way. Why? Because Republican voters fundamentally favor vulgar, ill-mannered, tawdry politicians? No, because the elite-generated society of America had become so bad in their view that they turned to the man who most clamorously rebelled against it.
The crisis of the elites could be seen everywhere. Take immigration policy. Leave aside for purposes of discussion the debate on the merits of the issue—whether mass immigration is good for America or whether it reaches a point of economic diminishing returns and threatens to erode America’s underlying culture. Whatever the merits on either side of that debate, mass immigration, accepted and even fostered by the nation’s elites, has driven a powerful wedge through America. Couldn’t those elites see that this would happen? Did they care so little about the polity over which they held stewardship that their petty political prejudices were more important than the civic health of their nation?
So now we have some 11 million illegal immigrants in America, a rebuke to territorial sovereignty and to the rule of law upon which our nation was founded, with no reasonable solution—and generating an abundance of political tension. Beyond that, we have fostered an immigration policy that now has foreign-born people in America approaching 14 percent—a proportion unprecedented in American history except for the 1920s, the last time a backlash against mass immigration resulted in curtailment legislation.
And yet the elites never considered the importance to the country’s civic health of questions related to assimilation—what’s an appropriate inflow for smooth absorption. Some even equated those who raised such questions to racists and xenophobes. Meanwhile, we have “sanctuary cities” throughout Blue State America that are refusing to cooperate with federal officials seeking to enforce the immigration laws—the closest we have come as a nation to “nullification” since the actual nullification crisis of the 1830s, when South Carolina declared its right to ignore federal legislation it didn’t like. (Andrew Jackson scotched the movement by threatening to hang from the nearest tree anyone involved in violence stemming from the crisis.)
Then there is the spectacle of the country’s financial elites goosing liquidity massively after the Great Recession to benefit themselves while slamming ordinary Americans with a resulting decline in Main Street capitalism. The unprecedented low interest rates over many years, accompanied by massive bond buying called “quantitative easing,” proved a boon for Wall Street banks and corporate America while working families lost income from their money market funds and savings accounts. The result, says economic consultant David M. Smick, author of The Great Equalizer, was “the greatest transfer of middle-class and elderly wealth to elite financial interests in the history of mankind.” Notice that these post-recession transactions were mostly financial transactions, divorced from the traditional American passion for building things, innovating, and taking risks—the kinds of activities that spur entrepreneurial zest, generate new enterprises, and create jobs. Thus did this economic turn of events reflect the financialization of the U.S. economy—more and more rewards for moving money around and taking a cut and fewer and fewer rewards for building a business and creating jobs.
And, though these policies were designed to boost economic growth, they have failed to do so, as America suffered through one of the longest periods of mediocre growth in its history.
All this contributed significantly to the hollowing out of the American working class—once the central foundation of the country’s economic muscle and political stability. Now these are the forgotten Americans, deplorable to Hillary Clinton and her elite followers, left without jobs and increasingly bereft of purpose and hope.
And if they complain they find themselves confronting the forces of political correctness, bent on shutting them up and marginalizing them in the political arena. For all the conservative and mainstream complaints against political correctness over the years, it was never clear just how much civic frustration and anger it was generating across the country until Donald Trump unfurled his attack on the phenomenon in his campaign. Again, it was ordinary Americans against the elites.
The elites also ran American foreign policy, as they have throughout U.S. history. Over the past 25 years they got their country bogged down in persistent wars with hardly any stated purpose and in many instances no end in sight—Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya. Many elites want further U.S. military action in Ukraine, against Iran, and to thwart China’s rise in Asia. Aside from the risk of growing geopolitical blowback against America, the price tag is immense, contributing to the country’s ongoing economic woes.
When Trump, marshaling this anti-elite resentment into a powerful political wave, won the presidential election last November, it was noted that he would be a minority president in the popular vote. But then so was Nixon; so was Clinton; so was Wilson; indeed, so was Lincoln. The Trump victory constituted a political revolution.
Now comes the counterrevolution. The elites figure that if they can just get rid of Trump, the country can return to what they consider normalcy—the status quo ante, before the Trumpian challenge to their status as rulers of America. That’s why there is so much talk about impeachment even in the absence of any evidence thus far of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” That’s why the firing of James Comey as FBI director raises the analogy of Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre.” That’s why the demonization of Russia has reached a fevered pitch, in hopes that even minor infractions on the part of the president can be raised to levels of menace and threat.
Ross Douthat, the conservative New York Times columnist, even suggests the elites of Washington should get rid of Trump through the use of the Constitution’s 25th Amendment, which allows for the removal of the president if a majority of the cabinet informs the Congress that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” and if a two-thirds vote of Congress confirms that judgment in the face of a presidential challenge. This was written of course for such circumstances of presidential incapacity as ill health or injury, but Douthat’s commitment to the counterrevolution is such that he would advocate its use for mere presidential incompetence.
Consider the story of Trump’s revelation of classified information to Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador to the United States. No one disputes the president’s right to declassify governmental information at will, but was it wise in this instance? Certainly, it was reckless if he exposed sources and methods of intelligence gathering. But did he?
The president and his top foreign policy advisers, who were present during the conversation, say he didn’t. The media and Trump’s political adversaries insist that he did, at least implicitly. We don’t know. But we do know that when this story reached the pages of The Washington Post, as a result of leaks from people around Trump who want to see him crushed, it led to a feeding frenzy that probably harmed American interests far more than whatever Trump may have said to those Russians. Instead of Trump’s indiscretion being confined to a single conversation with foreign officials, it now is broadcast throughout the world. Instead of, at worst, a hint of where the intelligence came from, everyone now knows it came from the Israelis. Instead of being able to at least pursue a more cooperative relationship with Russia on matters of mutual interest, Trump is once again forced back on his heels on Russian policy by government officials and their media allies—who, unlike Trump, were never elected to anything.
Thus is the Trump crisis now superimposed upon the much broader and deeper crisis of the elites, which spawned the Trump crisis in the first place. Yes, Trump is a disaster as president. He lacks nearly all the qualities and attributes a president should have, and three and a half more years of him raises the specter of more and more unnecessary tumult and deepening civic rancor. It could even prove to be untenable governmentally. But trying to get rid of him before his term expires, absent a clear constitutional justification and a clear assent from the collective electorate, will simply deepen the crisis, driving the wedge further into the raw American heartland and generating growing feelings that the American system has lost its legitimacy.
There is no way out for America at this point. Steady as she goes could prove highly problematic. A push to remove him could prove worse. Perhaps a solution will present itself. But, even if it does, it will rectify, with great societal disquiet and animosity, merely the Trump crisis. The crisis of the elites will continue, all the more intractable and ominous.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century , is due out from Simon & Schuster in September.