I hope Obama proves to be right about the long arc of history. But I fear he has been wrong too many times during his presidency for me to have that much hope for the immediate future of America in the world.
Patriotic advocates of a more restrained foreign policy should not be sanguine about the likely consequences of such an eventuality.
There are many things that could be said about Trump’s travel ban, and most of them have already been said in multiple venues, including by TAC‘s own Daniel Larison. I just want to highlight again one item: nearly half of those affected by the ban come from Iran, a country that is not experiencing Islamist violence, that is not producing large numbers of refugees, and from which we have no particular reason to suspect terrorists might be planning to sneak into America.
I can think of legitimate reasons why Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan were not included (all major regional allies whose cooperation we need), as well as Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK and Russia (at that point, you might as well ban the world), all of which have produced home-grown Islamist terrorists who might travel to America — or already have. Those reasons do tend to undermine the argument that, even if it had been rolled out in a more prudent and less gratuitously-cruel manner, the ban was a sensible way to protect American security — but let’s grant that being extra cautious about people coming from a war zone isn’t obviously crazy, and that we should be able to argue like civilized people about how to balance helping people facing death versus protecting ourselves from wolves who may be hiding among the sheep.
But it seems to me that anyone arguing with a straight face that the ban was about protecting America from terrorists should be arguing — among other things — that Iran doesn’t belong on the list. Yet this is the only mention of Iran in David French’s defense of Trump’s order (which is probably the best defense I’ve read so far):
[T]he order imposes a temporary, 90-day ban on people entering the U.S. from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. These are countries either torn apart by jihadist violence or under the control of hostile, jihadist governments.
That’s it. Iran is a “hostile, jihadist government” so we should presume all Iranians are a security risk.
This is why I’m going to continue to assume that a primary reason for the ban in the first place was to provoke Iranian retaliation, with the ultimate goal that poisoned relations will eventually provide a pretext for war.
Regular readers know I was very clear in calling out the Democratic candidate’s enthusiasm for conflict with Iran. I have zero reason to trust that this administration is any less enthused, and I interpret their actions accordingly.
Most of the way through the article that I promoted last week, Stephen Walt, having explained all the ways in which Trump is not behaving rationally, considers the possibility of a rational strategy at play on a deeper level:
[T]here’s a third possibility, one that offers a unified, coherent explanation for some of the apparent contradictions in Trump’s foreign-policy views. Trump and some of his advisors (most notably Stephen Bannon) may be operating from a broad, Huntingtonian “clash of civilizations” framework that informs both their aversion to multiculturalism at home and their identification of friends and foes abroad. In this essentially cultural, borderline racialist worldview, the (mostly white) Judeo-Christian world is under siege from various “other” forces, especially Muslims. From this perspective, the ideal allies are not liberals who prize tolerance, diversity, and an open society, but rather hard-core blood-and-soil nationalists who like walls, borders, strong leaders, the suppression or marginalization of anyone who’s different (including atheists and gay people, of course) and the promotion of a narrow and fairly traditional set of cultural values.
For people who see the world this way, Putin is a natural ally. He declares Mother Russia to be the main defender of Christianity and he likes to stress the dangers from Islam. European leaders like Marine Le Pen of France, Nigel Farage of Great Britain, and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands are Trump’s kind of people, too, and on this dimension so are the right-wingers in the Israeli government. And if Islam is the real source of danger, and we are in the middle of a decades-long clash of civilizations, who cares about the balance of power in Asia?
The problem with this way of thinking, as I wrote back when The Clash of Civilizations first appeared, is that it rests on a fundamental misreading of world politics. “Civilizations” are not political entities; they do not have agency and do not in fact act. For good or ill, states still drive most of world politics, and clashes within Huntington’s various “civilizations” are still more frequent and intense than clashes between them. Moreover, seeing the future as a vast contest between abstract cultural groupings is a self-fulfilling prophecy: If we assume the adherents of different religions or cultural groups are our sworn enemies, we are likely to act in ways that will make that a reality.
This is a very tricky possibility to address, which is why Walt addresses it so delicately. But I’m not sure his response — that states remain the primary actors on the world stage, and that assuming the inevitability of conflict is self-fulfilling prophecy — is adequate.
Samuel Huntington’s thesis was not that America and the West are under siege from foreign forces, but that the major source of conflict in the post-Cold War world was going to be identity-based rather than ideological, and that the primary source of identity was no longer going to be national but supra-national and civilizational. Moreover, I don’t read Huntington as intending to argue that some entity other than states was becoming the primary actor on the international stage (though I admit that his language is certainly open to that interpretation), but rather as complicating the realist assumption that states have a relatively high degree of freedom to pursue their interests as best they understand them, and to explain how those constraints were in the process of changing. It was an analytic framework intended to inform policy, and not a call-to-arms.
It has been read as a call-to-arms by some people, however. Tony Blankley would be one good example, as would David Goldman — and Steve Bannon is a third. Bannon, now a member of the “principals committee” of the National Security Council, is an interesting figure, and not at all the sort of person you normally find high up in an American administration. He’s not really a political advisor in the mode of David Axelrod or Karl Rove. He’s an ideologist, someone who thinks in world-historical terms. He hasn’t been elevated to the NSC in order help President Trump navigate the domestic politics of a given national security question. He’s there because he has a view of How The World Works — and his view of domestic politics is derivative of that view.
So here’s the thing. I don’t share Bannon’s worldview. Like Stephen Walt, I think that view is quite dangerous — in large part because I think he’s engaged in the same kind of extreme ideological flattening that the neoconservatives of the Bush Administration were, but based on different premises and with consequently different aims. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think Huntington’s views should be similarly dismissed.
For example, I think the Islamic world is going through a civilizational crisis, and that this is an important fact of world politics. But I don’t think this means that Islam is an enemy civilization, or that there is any benefit to acting as if it is. Indeed, one of Huntington’s conclusions is that it would be a very good thing for the West if a single, dominant and stable Sunni Muslim state emerged for the rest of the Muslim world to rally around, and that a lot of our problems stemmed from the fact that nothing like that was happening.
I also think that China will continue to modernize, and that it will continue not to converge to some idealized Western model of political development, such that we can’t be confident that the higher it rises the more it will think like we do, and therefore that accommodation will be relatively painless. But I don’t think that means America and China are destined to go to war over who is top nation, so we might as well have it out now while we are still militarily dominant. And as I recall, Huntington’s view of competition with China looked very compatible with Walt’s, with the exception that he was more skeptical of America’s ability to balance China long-term through local allies that would have reasons of history and identity to be more comfortable engaging in bandwagoning around Chinese power.
Huntington’s original thesis was criticized by many, as is entirely appropriate, for being an inaccurate interpretation of world developments, and in the two decades since he published the book there has been ample evidence on both sides. But there were plenty of people who attacked his thesis for being morally wrong, implicitly endorsing the prescriptive conclusions that people like Bannon have drawn as following necessarily from Huntington’s premises. And that’s a much bigger problem now that someone like Bannon has his hands on the levers of policy.
Bannon and his ilk bolster their intellectual position every time their opponents seem unable adequately to explain the world as it is, or to be taking a moral stance against reality. I don’t want to give them that assistance.
Following up on yesterday’s post about Stephen Walt’s article, I have to issue a minor mea culpa. I used a Washington Post story about the State Department resignations as an illustration of a larger point Walt was making about the importance of having a bureaucracy that functions well. That story has since come under widespread criticism for misrepresenting both the cause and the scale of the resignations.
So, the mea culpa is: I should have known better. I call it a minor mea culpa for two reasons: first, because I was hardly banging the table about what an outrage the resignations were (I was just saying: here’s an example of the sort of thing Walt is talking about), and, indeed, I was clear in my citation of the story that we didn’t really know enough to judge what the real reasons were for these officials’ departure; and second, because nobody’s going to get this stuff right all the time, and the real test of integrity is whether you correct and learn from your mistakes, not whether you never make them.
Which leads me to a larger point. Do news organizations need to be “especially careful” in the age of Trump, because if they get anything wrong they will discredit their entire enterprise? No: news organizations should always be careful — there’s nothing special about the age of Trump in that regard. And they’ll still sometimes get stuff wrong. That shouldn’t make us “distrust the media” and get all our information from “alternative” sources that take even less care. It just means that “trust, but verify” remains an excellent maxim for dealing with both friendly and hostile media outlets.
If the media gets increasingly hysterical, in other words, that’s unfortunate, whether they wind up hyping everything that happens as the beginning of the apocalypse or whether they channel that hysteria into being “extra careful.” But we shouldn’t get hysterical about that in response. That would just compound the problem.
Instead, I endorse Alan Jacobs’s suggestion (seconded by Rod Dreher) that we all “get a longer news frequency.” I can’t think of a better way to approach life under a president who doesn’t read books and spends lots of time on Twitter than to do the opposite. And there’s no contradiction between doing that and also taking concrete actions, personal or political, on issues that actually matter to you.
I don’t know why Kevin Drum went with a snarky header (well, actually I do, but that’s not a reason I’ll endorse), because this seems like a really good measure of employment to be following (courtesy of Jordan Weissmann):
The BLS even produces a data point that Trump himself might like: The employment-to-population ratio for adults between the ages of 25 and 54—or “prime-age EPOP.”…It gives us a raw look at the employment rate, without any fancy caveats about who is and isn’t part of the labor force. And because it only tracks workers 25 to 54, it isn’t really distorted by the wave of retiring boomers or growing college attendance. It’s a simple snapshot of the portion of the population we most need to worry about….Best of all, from Trump’s perspective at least, prime-age EPOP has plenty of room for improvement….If Trump wants to argue that Obama left him an economy that was still hurting, this is one stat that will easily help make the case.
And look: it does!
That’s actually the inverse of EPOP, a measure not of who’s employed but who isn’t, so it’s more directly comparable to the unemployment rate. In other words, this is everybody of prime age who is not working — whether they are unemployed, discouraged, back in school, staying home as a full-time parent, whatever.
And, as the chart clearly shows, the Great Recession really did a number on workforce participation, with about 5% of this prime-age cohort dropping out. And the recovery has been weak. Even after the recession ended, participation didn’t start to improve for a couple of years. And now, with the recovery decidedly long in the tooth, we’re still only back to a level comparable to the peaks after the last two recessions.
Right now, the unemployment rate is 4.7%. But 21.8% of prime-age potential workforce is not gainfully employed. That’s about where this measure was in 1992, when the unemployment rate was 7.5% and Clinton rode to victory on the slogan, “It’s the Economy, Stupid.”
I highly doubt that this measure can be explained by more people staying at home to parent full-time, or engaged in full-time education or training that will provide them with skills and credentials to improve their income. It’s partly explained by the explosion in disability claims — but that should be no comfort at all. Ultimately it is what it looks like: evidence that the recovery, at least in terms of employment, isn’t nearly as good as it looks (and that the recession that preceded it was arguably worse than it looked at the time).
This isn’t an anecdote. It’s data, data that confirms what the last election told us: that while by some important measures the economy really has recovered, by other measures there is an awful lot of pain out there, pain from the persistent lack of remunerative employment. And I’d wager anything that if you sliced this measure geographically, you’d see much better numbers in both red and blue states where Trump underperformed than in the states that put him over the top.
We should be watching this measure — not only because it’s a good way to monitor the administration’s economic performance, but because alternative approaches the opposition may tout better speak to it if they want to get traction.
Stephen Walt pulls no punches in his assessment of Trump’s behavior as President-elect and President, and how it will affect America’s international position.
First of all, he’s alienated himself from the people he’d need to execute his policies:
Government bureaucrats have been held in low regard for a long time, which makes them an easy target. But you also can’t do anything in public policy without their assistance, and my guess is that Americans will be mighty unhappy when budget cuts, firings, resignations, and the like reduce government performance even more. Get ready for a steady drip, drip, drip of leaks and stories emanating from dedicated civil servants who are committed to advancing the public interest and aren’t going to like being treated with contempt and disdain by a bunch of hedge fund managers, wealthy Wall Streeters, or empty suits like Energy Secretary Rick Perry, all led by President Pinocchio.
Cue the resignation of the entire State Department management team. These are by and large not policy people — they’re the people who make the building (and its global outposts) run. We still don’t know why the mass exodus happened, whether it was a political decision by Trump, a gesture of protest, or a response to the treatment of one particular individual. But I have no doubt we’ll learn more soon enough, both from the people who resigned and from the voluminous leakers at the White House.
Then, there are the problems with his foreign policy outlook:
As I’ve noted repeatedly, a few elements of Trump’s worldview make sense, such as his aversion to nation-building in the greater Middle East. But as Jessica Mathews points out in an important essay in the New York Review of Books, Trump and key advisors like Michael Flynn also believe Islamic extremism is a mortal danger and have promised to get rid of the Islamic State right away. But how do you do that, and how do you make sure the Islamic State doesn’t come back, if you aren’t busy invading, occupying, and nation-building in the areas where it and other extremist movements live and recruit? In fact, Islamic extremism is a problem but not an existential threat, which is why the United States does not need to try to transform the whole region. But Trump doesn’t seem to see things this way.
Cue Trump’s apparent intention to intervene more aggressively in Syria than the Obama Administration did. Personally, I don’t think he intends to do anything of the sort — I think the announcement merely proves that nobody in the White House knows what they are advocating. But that’s if anything even worse.
Walt goes on to point out that Trump’s approach to China so far (picking fights over the South China Sea while withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multi-lateral trade pact designed to counter China economically), seems destined to weaken America’s position and strengthen China’s, while his failure to articulate a clear strategy towards Russia has kept alive suspicions that his overtures are driven by a corrupt bargain rather than a view of the national interest. His conclusion:
So where does this leave us? Way too soon to tell, but I’ll hazard two guesses. First, foreign and defense policies are going to be a train wreck, because they don’t have enough good people in place, the people they have appointed don’t agree on some pretty big issues (e.g., NATO), the foreign-policy “blob” will undercut them at every turn, and Trump himself lacks the discipline or strategic vision to manage this process and may not care to try. Even if you agree with his broad approach, his team is going to make a lot more rookie mistakes before they figure out what they are doing.
Second, get ready for a lot of unexpected developments and unintended consequences. If the United States is giving up its self-appointed role as the “indispensable nation” and opting instead for “America First,” a lot of other countries will have to rethink their policies, alignments, and commitments. Unraveling a long-standing order is rarely a pretty process, especially when it happens quickly and is driven not by optimism but by anger, fear, and resentment. I’ve long favored a more restrained U.S. grand strategy, but I also believed that that process had to be done carefully and above all strategically. That doesn’t appear to be President Trump’s approach to anything, which means we are in for a very bumpy ride to an unknown destination.
I wholeheartedly agree. And I’m listening closely to see whether other self-described advocates of realism and restraint join the chorus of opposition, or continue to delude themselves that Trump is a useful vehicle for their perspective.
UPDATE: A friend sends me this Diplopundit blog post to suggest that things aren’t nearly as bad as the coverage has made it seem, at least on the State Department personnel front:
Today, WaPo reports that the “entire senior management team just resigned.” In addition to U/S Kennedy stepping down, others named includes A/Barr, CA/Bond, DS/Gentry, all career diplomats, and presumably are retiring from the Foreign Service. Previous departures include OBO’s non-career appointee, Lydia Muniz o/a January 20, and Diplomatic Security’s Greg Starr who retired a week before inauguration.
As we have noted before in this blog, U/S Kennedy has been the Under Secretary for Management since 2007. He is the longest serving “M in the history of the State Department, and only the second career diplomat to encumber this position. U/S Kennedy’s departure is a major change, however, it is not unexpected.
The “M” family of offices is the train that runs the State Department, it also affects every part of employees lives in the agency. But there are 13 offices under the “M” group. Four departures this week including Kennedy, plus two previous ones do not make the “entire” senior management. If there are other retirements we are not hearing, let us know. But as one former senior State Department official told us too much hyperventilation at the moment “is distracting from things that really are problematic.”
The challenge now for Mr. Tillerson who we expect will be confirmed as the 69th Secretary of State next week, is to find the right successor to lead the “M” group. We hope he picks one who knows the levers and switches in Foggy Bottom and not one who will get lost in the corridors.
I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job, generally, of not jumping on every story about how the sky is falling (you’ll note I’ve said nothing about Betsy DeVos), but I may have jumped the gun here. Time will tell.
Meanwhile, I don’t retract anything about my admiration for Walt’s article.
My latest column at The Week is a warning to the Democrats not to be tempted to pursue a “do-over” of the 2016 election. Restorationism, I point, is not what brought the Republicans roaring back in 2010 — or 1994, or 1980:
TARP was originally organized by Bush’s Treasury Department, and the Federal Reserve began its extraordinary easing of monetary policy in the Bush years as well — and was led throughout the crisis period by a Bush-appointed chairman.
The Tea Party seized on these facts rather than hiding them. Far from defending the Bush administration or the McCain campaign and calling Obama to task for changing direction, it eagerly condemned them both for their betrayal of conservative principles. In this way, the Tea Party seized the mantle of change. Obama and the Democrats had their response to the crisis — and through the Tea Party, the Republicans transformed from being the party that caused the crisis to the party that advocated a very different response.
The Gingrich Republicans did pretty much the same thing back in their day. The elder President Bush sparked a revolt on his right flank for having violated his pledge not to raise taxes. Gingrich was one of the leaders of the Republican opposition to that move, and he rode that opposition all the way to the speakership. Then, President Clinton — elected with a smaller percentage of the popular vote than President Trump — passed his own tax hike and spending initiatives, and Gingrich swung into furious opposition. With the Contract with America, Republicans went from being the party to blame for the savings and loan crisis, and the huge deficits and tax hikes that followed, to being a party with something new to say — a different response to the budget and tax situation than the one proposed by the Clinton administration.
The same was true of the Reagan revolution in 1980. Between high inflation and high unemployment at home, and the hostages in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan abroad, Reagan had plenty to run against. But he ran against way more than that. In the primaries and in the general election, he ran not only against Jimmy Carter’s failed tenure, but against Gerald Ford’s as well — a replay of his 1976 challenge to the sitting Republican president. He wasn’t a restorationist. He was a revolutionary. As, in his opera buffa way, is Trump himself, having capitalized on the Tea Party’s anti-establishment energy and channeled it towards his own indictment of America’s governing elite, the GOP elite very much included.
Can the Democrats follow that playbook? Only if they are willing to slight a leadership to which they still have a lot of understandable loyalty.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign, for all its arrogance and ineptitude, substantively represented the views of mainstream Democrats pretty well. And Obama left office not only very popular on a personal level, but with a growing percentage of Americans supporting his core policy initiatives. There’s a lot of loyalty there, and its reflected in the elegiac tone of much of the commentary on the end of the Obama years, and the continued popularity of “I’m With Her” on Saturday’s signs.
But Democrats would be well advised to abjure these sentiments when they think about making a case to the American people over the next two years. It’s a positive for Democrats that they don’t need to escape the memory of a deeply unpopular ex-president. But it’s also a negative if it keeps them from charting a new course, or separating themselves from the aspects of their time in office that enough Americans were frustrated with to take the extraordinary risk of electing Trump.
Those Americans are the ones Democrats need to be loyal to, not to their own leadership. That may mean occasionally agreeing with and even praising Trump — as Bernie Sanders did when the president withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If you stand for something, you need to stand for it even when your opponents agree with you — and doing so in no way stops you from fighting them on other fronts. Gingrich reached across the aisle to pass NAFTA and welfare reform, both priorities of his that congressional Democrats opposed. Neither stopped him from shutting down the government, nor his successors from pursuing impeachment.
I remain highly confident that, in substantive terms, the Trump administration is going to prove a disaster, partly because of its massive internal contradictions and partly because of the exceptionally poor character of Trump himself. But as Damon Linker points out in his own column this morning, it could still prove politically potent:
A slew of sophisticated commentators during the 1970s and ’80s, from Daniel Bell to Michael Harrington, dismissed Reaganism as hopelessly contradictory. Yet it gained power and transformed the boundaries of political possibility for the past 36 years, with even Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama hemmed in by the limits it placed on policy debate.
What if Trump’s syncretic position — its combination of supply-side tax cuts and arm-twisting of corporate big wigs over outsourcing, its promises to gut regulations while also making “every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs” with an eye to what benefits “American workers and American families” — actually catches fire among voters?
Democrats have dismissed the possibility because it’s very much in their interest to do so — and because many of them genuinely believe that the economic and political consequences of that populist-plutocratic amalgam will be transparently disastrous. Trump’s most thoughtful critics on the right, meanwhile, tend to assume both that a combination of different libertarian and nationalist policies would be preferable to the ones that Trump has emphasized, and that Trump is personally so unstable and flagrantly unsuited to the office he now holds that his whole presidency is likely to spiral very quickly into dysfunction and even chaos. Others emphasize that, however appealing Trump’s pitch might be to a certain segment of voters, he is just one man — and one who (unlike Reagan) has failed to inspire a movement of ideological compatriots to press his agenda in Congress.
I agree with elements of each critique and have assumed up until now that one way or the other the Trump administration would skirt serious danger and end up an incontestable failure. I still think that’s the most likely scenario. But one event from these opening days of the Trump presidency has shaken my confidence.
That was the meeting he held on his first Monday in office with the leadership of several hard-hat unions. Most of the unions continued their longstanding support for Democratic candidates by endorsing Hillary Clinton in the recent election. Yet there they were, invited to a Republican White House right from the start, sitting down with the president of the United States (and several senior White House officials), who promised to “get them working again.” In response, the union leaders offered praise for the new president, while noting that during the eight years of the Obama presidency they had never been invited to a similar meeting.
Could Trump decisively flip the unions and their voters to the GOP? He already won far more of their votes in 2016 than Mitt Romney did four years earlier. If that trend continues and accelerates, the rust-belt states that gave Trump his microscopically narrow win this time around could end up firmly in the Republican column, forming an imposing new electoral Red Wall in the upper Midwest. If that begins to happen, Paul Ryan and other Reaganite holdouts may yet become latter-day converts to the Trumpian populist cause.
Linker thinks that’s the less-likely outcome — and I agree. But it’s not impossible — and it could happen even if the Trump years aren’t particularly good for America.
Remember: George W. Bush ran for reelection after presiding over a weak recovery from a recession, after failing to prevent the largest terrorist attack in American history (and failing to capture or kill the men most responsible for that attack), and after launching an unnecessary and unrelated war of choice that was, in 2004, already clearly not going well. But he won.
One of the reasons that he won is that he successfully pushed through policies that, even if they were not designed to promote the general welfare, demonstrated his loyalty to crucial constituency groups. His 2002 steel tariffs were a small-bore example of such a policy. They failed to achieve their largest objectives, but they provided a clear contrast with the Clinton administration’s opposition to protectionism. Voters in West Virginia (and western Pennsylvania) remembered whose side he was on.
A larger-scale example of such a policy was Medicare Part D. The law was designed very much with pharmaceutical interests in mind, and as such represented a large giveaway from the public as a whole, who had to pay for the law, to the retirees and drug companies who reaped the benefits. It was opposed by some principled Republicans for those reasons — but it enabled Bush to run for reelection as the man who cared about seniors, a crucial portion of his electoral coalition.
It’s not hard to imagine Trump putting together policies of a similar character, and getting them through a highly partisan Congress. It’s not impossible to imagine a 2020 environment where growth has remained sluggish while the deficit has ballooned, inflation has ticked up and the dollar has fallen; where Texas has lost jobs because of uncertainty about NAFTA and California and New York are suffering from a housing hiccup; where the Middle East continues to smolder and terrorism continues to rock Europe, while China is quietly asserting a position of leadership in global circles — and yet, the wealthy are feeling flush, manufacturing job growth is positive in crucial Midwestern states, and a governing majority of Americans are convinced that while the world is going to hell, at least Trump is putting America first.
The Democrats need to plan to win in that environment. They need to think about the future — and they need to sell the future to those Americans who, as of 2016, believe that there is no place for them in it.
A priest, a boy scout and Elon Musk are flying in an airplane together. Suddenly, there’s a jolt, and the plane starts to dive.
The pilot runs back to the cabin and says, “we’re going down, and we only have three parachutes!”
The four freeze for a second, and then Elon Musk grabs for a chute and hoists it onto his back.
“I’m sorry, but I’m the smartest man in the world — it’s vital that I survive. Good luck!” And he jumps out of the plane.
The priest and the pilot look at each other, and the priest says, “Don’t worry, my son. I’ve lived a good life. You and the boy take the two remaining chutes.”
The pilot is about to object, when the boy scout pipes up. “But there are still three chutes left.”
The priest and the pilot look at him. The boy grins. “The smartest man in the world just jumped out with my backpack.”
An old joke, right? I remember when the smartest man in the world was Henry Kissinger.
But apparently Elon Musk and his like don’t realize it’s supposed to be a joke. Want to throw up in your mouth? Take a look at this article by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker about survivalism among America’s coastal elites:
Survivalism, the practice of preparing for a crackup of civilization, tends to evoke a certain picture: the woodsman in the tinfoil hat, the hysteric with the hoard of beans, the religious doomsayer. But in recent years survivalism has expanded to more affluent quarters, taking root in Silicon Valley and New York City, among technology executives, hedge-fund managers, and others in their economic cohort.
Last spring, as the Presidential campaign exposed increasingly toxic divisions in America, Antonio García Martínez, a forty-year-old former Facebook product manager living in San Francisco, bought five wooded acres on an island in the Pacific Northwest and brought in generators, solar panels, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. “When society loses a healthy founding myth, it descends into chaos,” he told me. The author of “Chaos Monkeys,” an acerbic Silicon Valley memoir, García Martínez wanted a refuge that would be far from cities but not entirely isolated. “All these dudes think that one guy alone could somehow withstand the roving mob,” he said. “No, you’re going to need to form a local militia. You just need so many things to actually ride out the apocalypse.” Once he started telling peers in the Bay Area about his “little island project,” they came “out of the woodwork” to describe their own preparations, he said. “I think people who are particularly attuned to the levers by which society actually works understand that we are skating on really thin cultural ice right now.”
In private Facebook groups, wealthy survivalists swap tips on gas masks, bunkers, and locations safe from the effects of climate change. One member, the head of an investment firm, told me, “I keep a helicopter gassed up all the time, and I have an underground bunker with an air-filtration system.” He said that his preparations probably put him at the “extreme” end among his peers. But he added, “A lot of my friends do the guns and the motorcycles and the gold coins. That’s not too rare anymore.” . . .
How many wealthy Americans are really making preparations for a catastrophe? It’s hard to know exactly; a lot of people don’t like to talk about it. (“Anonymity is priceless,” one hedge-fund manager told me, declining an interview.) Sometimes the topic emerges in unexpected ways. Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and a prominent investor, recalls telling a friend that he was thinking of visiting New Zealand. “Oh, are you going to get apocalypse insurance?” the friend asked. “I’m, like, Huh?” Hoffman told me. New Zealand, he discovered, is a favored refuge in the event of a cataclysm. Hoffman said, “Saying you’re ‘buying a house in New Zealand’ is kind of a wink, wink, say no more. Once you’ve done the Masonic handshake, they’ll be, like, ‘Oh, you know, I have a broker who sells old ICBM silos, and they’re nuclear-hardened, and they kind of look like they would be interesting to live in.’ ”
I asked Hoffman to estimate what share of fellow Silicon Valley billionaires have acquired some level of “apocalypse insurance,” in the form of a hideaway in the U.S. or abroad. “I would guess fifty-plus per cent,” he said, “but that’s parallel with the decision to buy a vacation home. Human motivation is complex, and I think people can say, ‘I now have a safety blanket for this thing that scares me.’ ” The fears vary, but many worry that, as artificial intelligence takes away a growing share of jobs, there will be a backlash against Silicon Valley, America’s second-highest concentration of wealth. (Southwestern Connecticut is first.) “I’ve heard this theme from a bunch of people,” Hoffman said. “Is the country going to turn against the wealthy? Is it going to turn against technological innovation? Is it going to turn into civil disorder?”
The C.E.O. of another large tech company told me, “It’s still not at the point where industry insiders would turn to each other with a straight face and ask what their plans are for some apocalyptic event.” He went on, “But, having said that, I actually think it’s logically rational and appropriately conservative.”
The article suggests at several points that this sort of thing reflects the imagination of our financial and technological elite — their willingness to think outside the box — as well as the sheer scope of their available resources. But of course, it’s actually a massive failure of imagination — the failure to conceive of any way of ordering society that wouldn’t result in its collapse, or of any world in which they could be themselves and do what they do well and not be radically exempt from the larger social world.
The New Yorker hedge fund types that interviewed seemed somewhat more self-aware than the Silicon Valley bros, but no more able to conceive of a way out for society as whole rather than just for themselves:
On the opposite side of the country, similar awkward conversations have been unfolding in some financial circles. Robert H. Dugger worked as a lobbyist for the financial industry before he became a partner at the global hedge fund Tudor Investment Corporation, in 1993. After seventeen years, he retired to focus on philanthropy and his investments. “Anyone who’s in this community knows people who are worried that America is heading toward something like the Russian Revolution,” he told me recently.
To manage that fear, Dugger said, he has seen two very different responses. “People know the only real answer is, Fix the problem,” he said. “It’s a reason most of them give a lot of money to good causes.” At the same time, though, they invest in the mechanics of escape. He recalled a dinner in New York City after 9/11 and the bursting of the dot-com bubble: “A group of centi-millionaires and a couple of billionaires were working through end-of-America scenarios and talking about what they’d do. Most said they’ll fire up their planes and take their families to Western ranches or homes in other countries.” One of the guests was skeptical, Dugger said. “He leaned forward and asked, ‘Are you taking your pilot’s family, too? And what about the maintenance guys? If revolutionaries are kicking in doors, how many of the people in your life will you have to take with you?’ The questioning continued. In the end, most agreed they couldn’t run.”
Élite anxiety cuts across political lines. Even financiers who supported Trump for President, hoping that he would cut taxes and regulations, have been unnerved at the ways his insurgent campaign seems to have hastened a collapse of respect for established institutions. Dugger said, “The media is under attack now. They wonder, Is the court system next? Do we go from ‘fake news’ to ‘fake evidence’? For people whose existence depends on enforceable contracts, this is life or death.”
Robert A. Johnson sees his peers’ talk of fleeing as the symptom of a deeper crisis. At fifty-nine, Johnson has tousled silver hair and a soft-spoken, avuncular composure. He earned degrees in electrical engineering and economics at M.I.T., got a Ph.D. in economics at Princeton, and worked on Capitol Hill, before entering finance. He became a managing director at the hedge fund Soros Fund Management. In 2009, after the onset of the financial crisis, he was named head of a think tank, the Institute for New Economic Thinking.
When I visited Johnson, not long ago, at his office on Park Avenue South, he described himself as an accidental student of civic anxiety. He grew up outside Detroit, in Grosse Pointe Park, the son of a doctor, and he watched his father’s generation experience the fracturing of Detroit. “What I’m seeing now in New York City is sort of like old music coming back,” he said. “These are friends of mine. I used to live in Belle Haven, in Greenwich, Connecticut. Louis Bacon, Paul Tudor Jones, and Ray Dalio”—hedge-fund managers—“were all within fifty yards of me. From my own career, I would just talk to people. More and more were saying, ‘You’ve got to have a private plane. You have to assure that the pilot’s family will be taken care of, too. They have to be on the plane.’ ”
By January, 2015, Johnson was sounding the alarm: the tensions produced by acute income inequality were becoming so pronounced that some of the world’s wealthiest people were taking steps to protect themselves. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Johnson told the audience, “I know hedge-fund managers all over the world who are buying airstrips and farms in places like New Zealand because they think they need a getaway.”
Johnson wishes that the wealthy would adopt a greater “spirit of stewardship,” an openness to policy change that could include, for instance, a more aggressive tax on inheritance. “Twenty-five hedge-fund managers make more money than all of the kindergarten teachers in America combined,” he said. “Being one of those twenty-five doesn’t feel good. I think they’ve developed a heightened sensitivity.” The gap is widening further. In December, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a new analysis, by the economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, which found that half of American adults have been “completely shut off from economic growth since the 1970s.” Approximately a hundred and seventeen million people earn, on average, the same income that they did in 1980, while the typical income for the top one per cent has nearly tripled. That gap is comparable to the gap between average incomes in the U.S. and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the authors wrote.
Johnson said, “If we had a more equal distribution of income, and much more money and energy going into public school systems, parks and recreation, the arts, and health care, it could take an awful lot of sting out of society. We’ve largely dismantled those things.”
As public institutions deteriorate, élite anxiety has emerged as a gauge of our national predicament. “Why do people who are envied for being so powerful appear to be so afraid?” Johnson asked. “What does that really tell us about our system?” He added, “It’s a very odd thing. You’re basically seeing that the people who’ve been the best at reading the tea leaves—the ones with the most resources, because that’s how they made their money—are now the ones most preparing to pull the rip cord and jump out of the plane.”
But elite anxiety is not just a gauge of our national predicament. It’s a cause. These are people who have the power and position of societal leaders. They built the plane, they own the plane, and they fly the plane. We are all flying along with them. And they are having serious conversations about bailing out rather than, I don’t know, changing course, preparing for a water landing — anything that suggests a concern for all the other people in the plane as something other than a threat.
Survivalism isn’t new, of course — and the article talks about some of the comical and terrifying antecedents. But there is an enormous difference between self-appointed prophets of doom plying their trade and the leadership of society saying, “I paid for that parachute.”
Fear of disaster is healthy if it spurs action to prevent it. But élite survivalism is not a step toward prevention; it is an act of withdrawal. Philanthropy in America is still three times as large, as a share of G.D.P., as philanthropy in the next closest country, the United Kingdom. But it is now accompanied by a gesture of surrender, a quiet disinvestment by some of America’s most successful and powerful people. Faced with evidence of frailty in the American project, in the institutions and norms from which they have benefitted, some are permitting themselves to imagine failure. It is a gilded despair.
As Huffman, of Reddit, observed, our technologies have made us more alert to risk, but have also made us more panicky; they facilitate the tribal temptation to cocoon, to seclude ourselves from opponents, and to fortify ourselves against our fears, instead of attacking the sources of them. Justin Kan, the technology investor who had made a halfhearted effort to stock up on food, recalled a recent phone call from a friend at a hedge fund. “He was telling me we should buy land in New Zealand as a backup. He’s, like, ‘What’s the percentage chance that Trump is actually a fascist dictator? Maybe it’s low, but the expected value of having an escape hatch is pretty high.’ ”
There are other ways to absorb the anxieties of our time. “If I had a billion dollars, I wouldn’t buy a bunker,” Elli Kaplan, the C.E.O. of the digital health startup Neurotrack, told me. “I would reinvest in civil society and civil innovation. My view is you figure out even smarter ways to make sure that something terrible doesn’t happen.” Kaplan, who worked in the White House under Bill Clinton, was appalled by Trump’s victory, but said that it galvanized her in a different way: “Even in my deepest fear, I say, ‘Our union is stronger than this.’ ”
That view is, in the end, an article of faith—a conviction that even degraded political institutions are the best instruments of common will, the tools for fashioning and sustaining our fragile consensus. Believing that is a choice.
I called a Silicon Valley sage, Stewart Brand, the author and entrepreneur whom Steve Jobs credited as an inspiration. In the sixties and seventies, Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog” attracted a cult following, with its mixture of hippie and techie advice. (The motto: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”) Brand told me that he explored survivalism in the seventies, but not for long. “Generally, I find the idea that ‘Oh, my God, the world’s all going to fall apart’ strange,” he said.
At seventy-seven, living on a tugboat in Sausalito, Brand is less impressed by signs of fragility than by examples of resilience. In the past decade, the world survived, without violence, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression; Ebola, without cataclysm; and, in Japan, a tsunami and nuclear meltdown, after which the country has persevered. He sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, How do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”
As readers know, this is really out of character for me to go on like this — either to quote an article at such length or to play the outrage porn game of saying “can you believe this???” But this is my authentic reaction. I can’t believe it. I knew things were bad — but not this bad. I know some people who have senior roles at hedge funds, who move in high-powered circles in Silicon Valley. I’ve never heard anything quite like this. This is serious Ayn Rand meets Dr. Strangelove next-level stuff.
I really hope that Osnos is the new Stephen Glass, and that half of this article is made up out of whole cloth.
Half of the people have been very sure that if he were elected the country would come to an end, if the world did not. But we are inclined to believe that the Union will last a little longer, and that we shall have some good times yet, in time to come. It has been said that a “special Providence watches over children, drunkards, and the United States.” They make so many blunders, and yet live through them, it must be that they are cared for, for they take very little care of themselves. So we are disposed to trust Providence, and not to worry.
—Editor’s Drawer” column in the December 1856 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Volume 14.
(Do take care to notice who was elected President in 1856, when this bit of optimism was penned.)
I endorse basically everything in this Dan Drezner piece on the question. To whit:
- The recovery of the American economy — and its significant outperformance of Europe’s — in the wake of the financial crisis was a key element in restoring America’s world position, and something the Obama administration deserves real credit for. (To be clear: the problems with distribution of the recovery are a big reason why the establishments of both parties were rebuked so sharply in the most-recent election — but that doesn’t mean the recovery wasn’t real as well, and consequential, particularly given how poorly Europe has done by comparison.)
- The nuclear deal with Iran and the climate deal with China are major diplomatic accomplishments which could be the cornerstones of a better foreign policy orientation for America, focused on extrication from the Middle Eastern quagmire and building a productive, mutually-respectful relationship with a rising China — assuming they are not shredded by the incoming administration.
- But they are likely to be shredded. Obama has been too inclined to do the rational thing, as he calculated it, without regard to how those decisions were likely to be perceived, particularly by the American public. This mismanagement of his domestic political position, particularly in his second term, left his legacy orphaned of popular support.
Drezner sums up: “Obama’s greatest strength and his greatest weakness as a foreign policy leader was his Zen master approach to world politics.”
I would add, since Drezner glosses over it, that while Obama clearly wanted to extricate America from the Middle Eastern quagmire, part of his “rational” approach to doing this was to work slowly and within the confines of the Washington consensus and what our allies would “tolerate,” thereby allowing that process to take as long as it naturally might. In the course of that long, slow process, he wound up by default sinking deeper into the quagmire (in Afghanistan) and getting into new quagmires to boot (in Libya, in Yemen, and to some extent in Syria) instead of getting out. Rather than play Eisenhower in Korea, he played Nixon in Vietnam.
Now it is Trump’s turn to strut and fret his hour upon the stage. Whether he actually favors a more restrained foreign policy (something I highly doubt), I have no confidence that he could execute on that kind of vision — or, indeed, any kind. As often as not Trump just says he’s going to bomb the shit out of people.
So one of the risks of the incoming administration is that we will see a precipitous collapse in America’s international position, something worse than what we experienced in the late 1970s under Ford and Carter. In other words, I agree with Drezner’s conclusion as well:
Obama was more of a restorationist president than his critics realized. He came in at a low point in American power and influence in the world and helped to make America great again. However, his inattention and disdain for the politics of his job laid the groundwork for an incoming president who can tear down the very order that Obama fought hard to preserve.
Following up on my last post: I think it’s important to distinguish between identifying past mistakes and assuming you can simply undo them.
It has been abundantly clear for some time that the United States under President Bill Clinton badly mishandled the immediate post-Cold War period. We took advantage of Russian weakness in multiple ways, from corrupting its transition to democracy to facilitating the rape of its economy to transforming a previously defensive alliance (NATO) into a vehicle for American power projection, and expanding that alliance into former Soviet territory. It is not surprising that, in the wake of that experience, Russia has become deeply distrustful of America.
Russia’s interests are its interests, of course; they would want secure access to the Black Sea and the Baltic and a friendly port on the Mediterranean whether it felt threatened by America or not. Moreover, it is entirely plausible that, even had America handled Russia with greater foresight in the 1990s, an authoritarian populist leader aiming to restore Russia’s lost greatness would still have arisen after the trauma of the post-Soviet collapse. But it is reasonable to wonder whether the relationship between our countries would be on a better footing than it is now notwithstanding if we had handled things better then.
We confront the world as it is, though, not as we wish it had been or how it might have been had we acted with greater foresight. In the world as it is, Russia is a revisionist power looking to improve its security position in its local area and to disrupt security arrangements that it views as potential threats. We don’t have to exaggerate Russia’s ambitions or the nature of Russia’s challenge to European security to recognize that it has ambitions or that a challenge exists.
And in the world as it is, we have extended security guarantees to the Baltic states. We can regret having done so, but simply withdrawing those guarantees because we’ve thought better of the matter has broader implications for how America’s word is perceived. Once again, the fact that advocates of an aggressive foreign policy routinely exaggerate the both the importance and the fragility of credibility does not make the concept meaningless, and if it has any meaning at all then surely it means most when we are talking about formal treaty alliances.
It’s possible that the only practical way to rebalance our international commitments and get Europe to take more responsibility for its security (which they are fully capable of doing) is the blustery, obnoxious Trump way. But if that is the case, then that rebalancing is going to involve more violence, and more damage to America’s world position, then advocates seem to be willing to recognize. I’d like to think that it is not the only practical way. But then again, I think President Obama’s overall foreign policy approach is going to be more respected, not less, in light of what I suspect is to come, so I guess I would say that.