The wars between Trump, the media, the deep state, and the progressive party — replete with charges and counter-charges of scandal, collusion, and corruption — are merely symptoms of a much larger fundamental and growing divide between Americans that is reaching a dangerous climax.
On four prior occasions in American history the country nearly split apart, as seemingly irreconcilable cultural, economic, political, social, geographical, and demographic fault lines opened a path to hatred and violence.
During the Jacksonian Revolution of the 1830s, factions nearly ripped the country apart over whether the East Coast Founders’ establishment of a half-century would relinquish its monopoly of political power to reflect the new demographic realties of an expanding frontier — and its populist champions often deemed unfit for self-governance. For the most part, the Jacksonians won.
Three decades later the nation divided over slavery, prompting the most lethal war in American history to end it and force the defeated Confederate southern states back into the Union.
The Great Depression, and the establishment’s inept responses to it, left a quarter of the country unemployed for nearly a decade — hungry and desperate to expand government even if it entailed curtailing liberty in a way never envisioned by the Founders. The result was eventually the redefinition of freedom as the right of the individual to have his daily needs guaranteed by the state.
In the 1960s, the hippie movement — fueled by furor over the Vietnam War, civil-rights protests, and environmental activism — turned holistic in a fashion rarely seen before. A quarter of the country went “hip,” grooming, dressing, talking, and acting in a way that reflected their disdain for the silent majority of “straight” or “irrelevant” traditional America. The hipsters lost the battle (most eventually cut their hair and outgrew their paisley tops to join the rat race) but won the war — as the universities, media, foundations, Hollywood, arts, and entertainment now echo the values of 1969 rather than those that preceded it.
Now we are engaged in yet a fifth revolutionary divide, similar to, but often unlike, prior upheavals. The consequences of globalization, the growth of the deep state, changing demographics, open borders, the rise of a geographic apartheid between blue and red states, and the institutionalization of a permanent coastal political and culture elite — and the reaction to all that — are tearing apart the country.
Despite its 21st-century veneer, the nature of the divide is often over ancient questions of politics and society.
The Deep State
Technological advances, the entrance of a billion Chinese into the global work force, and the huge growth in the administrative entitlement state have redefined material want. The poor today have access to appurtenances undreamed of just five decades ago by the upper middle classes: one or two dependable cars, big-screen televisions, designer sneakers and jeans, and an array of appliances from air conditioning to microwave ovens. The rub is not that a Kia has no stereo system but that it does not have the same model that’s in the rich man’s Lexus. Inequality does not mean starvation: Obesity is now a national epidemic among the nation’s poor; one in four Californians admitted for any reason to a hospital is found to suffer from diabetes or similar high-blood-sugar maladies due largely to an unhealthy diet and lifestyle choices.
In political terms, the conflict hinges on whether the powers of entrenched government will be used to ensure a rough equality of result — at the expense of personal liberty and free will. The old argument that a wealthy entrepreneurial class, if left free of burdensome and unnecessary government restrictions to create wealth, will enrich all Americans, is now largely discredited. Or rather it is stranger than that. The hyper wealthy — a Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, or Warren Buffett — by brilliant marketing and opportunistic politics are mostly immune from government audit, and from robber-baron and antitrust backlash. Instead, redistributive ire is aimed at the upper middle class, which lacks the influence and romance of the extremely wealthy and is shrinking because of higher taxes, ever-increasing regulations, and globalized trade.
On the global stage, the near-religious idea of egalitarianism has all but won the war against liberty. We are all creatures of the Animal Farm barnyard now.
It does not matter that the ossified European social model does not work and leads to collective decline in the standard of living. The world knows that from seeing the implosion of Venezuela and Cuba, or the gradual decline of the EU and the wreckage of its Mediterranean members, or the plight of blue states such as Illinois and California. Instead, it is the near-religious idea of egalitarianism that counts; on the global stage, it has all but won the war against liberty. We are all creatures of the Animal Farm barnyard now.
Indeed, if today’s student actually read Orwell’s short allegorical novel (perhaps unlikely because it was written by a white male heterosexual), he would miss the message and instead probably approve of the various machinations of the zealot pig Napoleon to do whatever he deemed necessary to end the old regime, even if it meant re-creating it under a new correct veneer.
The conservative effort to roll back the entitlement, bureaucratic, and redistributionist state has so far mostly failed. That today, coming off sequestration, we are on target to run up a $700 billion annual deficit, on top of a $20 trillion national debt, goes largely unnoticed. Eighteen trillion dollars in national debt later, Ronald Reagan’s idea of cutting taxes to “starve the beast’ of federal spending has been superseded by “gorge the beast” to ensure that taxes rise on the upper classes. To the degree that there is a residual war over entitlements, it is not over cutting back such unsustainable programs, but instead about modestly pruning the level of annual increases.
The government necessary to ensure such continued state borrowing and spending is now nearly autonomous and transcends politics — and is eager to use its formidable powers against any who threaten it.
On a second front, there is a veritable civil war over race, ethnicity, gender, and identity. Massive immigration, the rise of opportunistic identity politics, and a new tribalism have replaced the old melting pot of assimilation, integration, and intermarriage with salad-bowl separatism. The only obstacle to the tribal state is that there may soon be too many victims with too many claims on too few oppressors.
There are too many incentives — from political spoils and university admissions, to government employment and popular cultural acceptance — to identify with one’s tribe rather than simply as an American.
The problems with such tribal fissuring are threefold. One, the rhetorical disdain for traditional majority culture and values operates in a landscape in which the critic adopts the tropes and lifestyles of all that he demonizes. From what traditions do the Claremont or Berkeley students believe their rights of protest derive? Where do they get their expectations of clean campus water or capital to drop out of the economy for four years of college? Was the technology behind the iPhone a result of a patriarchal, nativist, male culture — and does that therefore make the device tainted and unsuitable for use?
Second, if red-state, traditional America is constantly assaulted with various charges of –isms and —ologies, why would any foreigner wish to enter the United States, or upon entering live in such wretched places as red-state Arizona, Texas, Florida, or Utah? Is schizophrenia thus required: Concretely use and enjoy the legacies of a demonized culture while abstractly damning them?
Third, when tribalism supersedes the individual, then all criteria of merit, character, and ethics recede into identity: Race, gender, and ethnicity replace merit and we begin to have black NASA engineers, white nuclear-plant operators, or brown jet pilots rather than missiles, power, and flights that are overseen and operated by the most skilled among us. When a society operates on a tribal basis — we see it often in Africa and the Middle East — everything from tap water to IVs are a luxury.
In short, will America remain a multiracial nation united in one culture in which superficial physical appearance becomes largely irrelevant (and indeed one’s racial DNA pedigree soon becomes almost undefinable), or will it go the tribal route that ultimately leads to something like the Balkans, Rwanda, Iraq — or Evergreen State, Ferguson, and Middlebury?
Finally, there is a growing rejection of the founding principles of the United States, its traditional Christian-based values, and the old idea of American exceptionalism. Federalism and the idea of a republic, after all, do not necessarily lead to radical egalitarianism or a society of absolute equals. Yet the modern progressive mind is wedded to two principles: that 51 percent of the population at any given moment should have the final say in governance only if it reflects correct progressive principles; and if the population is “fooled” and votes incorrectly, then an elite in government, the courts, and the media will intervene to set in place what hoi polloi should have done to properly advance the correct agendas.
In practical terms, will universities still teach the inductive method and fact-based knowledge, or deductive social activism? Will our past be seen as noble and at times tragic, or melodramatically as exploitive? And will progressives abide by occasional political setbacks in elections, the courts, and popular referenda, or seek to subvert those institutions as unacceptable impediments to their radically egalitarian agendas?
So who is winning this fifth American conflict, and why?
It has an insidious appeal to human nature, offering contexts and arguments for dependency — which is defined as the consequence of some sort of prior unethical exploitation (rather than chance, bad luck, or personal pathology, perhaps in addition to exploitation) and therefore deserving of proper recompense. Progressivism promises a transcendence over nature’s limitations through superior education, proper training, and correct reasoning, as if poverty, illness, and inequality were not innate to human nature but results of selfishness and ignorance and so rather easily remedied. It confuses technological progress with a credo that human nature itself evolves in predictably progressive ways, thereby supposedly making obsolete institutions and protocols (from the Constitution itself to ancient ideas such as deterrence) that were once time-honored.
The combination of market capitalism and personal freedom can enervate a population, misleading people into thinking that their bounty is unending and natural, and giving them the latitude for cynicism, skepticism, and nihilism about the sources of their privilege.
Virtue-signaling among elites who are critical of the very protocols that led to their own success serves as a psychological mechanism to alleviate guilt about privilege. And when an elite deprecates its own culture, the ripple effects widen upon reaching the masses. The combination of market capitalism and personal freedom can enervate a population, misleading people into thinking that their bounty is unending and natural, and giving them the latitude for cynicism, skepticism, and nihilism about the sources of their privilege. In the West, a narcissism follows that oddly manifests itself in thinking that human sins are almost exclusively Westerners’ own.
These age-old observations often led to depressions among Western philosophers who grasped the Western paradox that the success of market capitalism and constitutional government might undermine the ancient virtues essential to their continuance.
In this latest arena of civil dissent, Donald Trump, the renegade liberal and most unlikely traditionalist, squares off against the elite that despises his very being not only for reasons of class and culture, but mostly for attempting to restore a traditional regime of citizenship, individualism, assimilation, territorial sovereignty, recognized borders, strong defense, deterrence abroad, and free-market capitalism.
In sum, behind the daily hysterias over collusions, recusals, obstructions, and nullifications, there is an ongoing, often vicious war over the very nature and future of Western culture in general and America in particular.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, to appear in October from Basic Books.