People who like to think and read (and write) about politics often fool themselves. We become skilled at drawing out the meaning of events — especially if the events themselves signify little or nothing at all. Many political addicts imagined that the election of Barack Obama would usher in massive changes to our government and even our society. Judging by the crowds he met in Germany, the whole world expected to be changed.
What did change? Well, some number of Americans were prodded by billions in subsidies, and other regulatory pushes and pulls across the health-insurance industry, to experience the American health-care system as we all know it: overpriced overtreatment, with giant layers of bureaucracy and opaque pricing cartels. But other than that, what else? Guantanamo Bay is still open. The U.S. military is still in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. relationship with Moscow has progressively deteriorated. The nation’s moral and legal fights were decided by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Every once in a while, the whole edifice of Obamacare felt threatened by the Supreme Court.
I almost fooled myself that there would be some major change under Donald Trump. He’s so erratic and has the nuclear button. Should I emigrate? (I really wondered.) What’s different? Is there a giant America First shift in foreign policy? We’re still in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as under Obama, every few months or so you read about U.S. troops killing or dying in a country that 99 percent of Americans didn’t know we were in. This week it was Niger. Just as under Obama, the U.S. and Moscow are kicking out dozens of diplomatic personnel. The foreign policy of the most powerful nation in world history seems to operate on autopilot.
Just as under Obama, Obamacare is in constant danger (now it’s the Republican Congress), but it never actually goes away. Years ago it was John Roberts who refused to kill it. Now it’s Rand Paul and John McCain. And, just as then, we await Justice Kennedy’s opinion on the great moral questions of our day. He’ll soon tell us whether the Framers intended that the handful of wedding vendors with religious scruples about same-sex marriage can be punished by the state.
Just as under Obama, globalization and automation threaten the livelihoods of workers. Just as under Obama, a drug epidemic is devouring larger and larger shares of people living in declining suburbs. Just as under Obama, the Republican Congress promises some great ideological revolution, and an unprecedented growth economy. And under Trump, just as under Obama, they cannot deliver.
There are some changes that you can attribute to the Trump administration. A little tax on Canadian lumber. A travel ban, but one that makes little sense — if you squint, you realize it’s just like the dozens of other post-9/11 security measures we accept. But for the vast majority of people in America or beyond, nothing is changing. We suffer the embarrassment and humiliation of our president’s using the highest political office in our land for feuds with media figures, or conjuring “some very fine people” out of a racist march.
I have listened to earnest public-spirited people, with years of government service, explain that with Donald Trump’s election, the entire post-1945 liberal world order is unraveling. Why? Was the election really worse than the Soviet invasion of Hungary? More frightening than seeing tanks fire on government buildings in Moscow? No. I dig into the reasons and discover it is because none of their friends were hired in to the Trump administration.
In one way, this is all very comforting. A great deal of damage was done in the great efforts for change in the 20th century — not just wars that could have been avoided, and ideological revolutions that tried to remake human society by sailing to utopia on oceans of human blood.
But I worry, too. Don’t you? It seems as if the engine has dropped out of our civilization. Or the oil pan broke and motor seized. Just as under Obama, so under Trump our most successful technology companies sit on oceans of ready cash. These supposed geniuses are signaling that they are out of business ideas. Out of talent to hire. Unable to see new opportunities.
People tell me they feel this nameless dread —the same dread we’ve known for some time.
Our artists, futurists, and intellectuals have lost faith in the future. Every vision of the future they conjure is dystopian: Private life is destroyed by technology. Much of humanity is rendered redundant and will have to be made wards of the successful. The family itself, robbed of its economic functions, will continue to disaggregate.
All people of even passing intelligence tell me they feel this nameless dread. And yet, it’s the same kind of dread we’ve known for some time. You could almost grow fond of it. Yesterday American troops were killing in Yemen, American addicts were dying in St. Louis, and American data were being leaked by Ashley Madison. Today we’re killing in Niger, people are dying in Putnam County, N.Y., and Equifax is leaking. Tomorrow it will be Iran, Greenwich, Conn., and Google. All the while Justice Kennedy will tell you what existence and morality mean now, while the rich get richer and retreat to even more obscure mountains for “ideas conferences.” Have you got a better idea?