[For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:
“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.” — T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men,” 1925
[Note to readers: I’m publishing the following post on Easter Sunday because its message is appropriate to this day. Christianity is the dominant religion in America, and Christians believe this day to be the day of Jesus’ resurrection. But if Christians in America abandon the cultural diversity that has always been our nation’s earmark, they can retard our nation’s cultural and economic resurrection and accelerate our national decline. Jesus himself would understand.]
Abusing the troops
Like the proverbial old soldier, great empires don’t die. They just fade away.
So it was with ancient Rome. You might have thought it was done when Alaric sacked the “Eternal City” on August 24, 410 A.D. But not exactly. The capital of the Western Roman Empire had already moved, first to Mediolanum in 286 A.D., then the Ravenna in 402. And Rome’s eastern successor, the Holy Roman Empire, lasted until 1806, when its last emperor, Francis II, aka Francis I of Austria, abdicated.
That’s over 1,400 years from the Visigoths’ sacking of the eternal city to Rome’s final demise—almost a millennium and a half! A slow denouement, wouldn’t you say?
But ancient history is, well, ancient history. What concerns us today is the fate of our own great empire, the United States of America. Are there analogies? Let’s take a look.
The first thing to note is what we say about ourselves. The truth will out, if nowhere else in popular speech. Even campaign slogans tell a tale.
Donald Trump became our supreme leader using the slogan “Make American Great Again
.” What about that little word “again”? Isn’t it a secret confession?
What are the main symptoms of a decaying society? For ancient Rome, I think there were four: corruption, abusing the troops, abusing minorities, and declining promise. Let’s examine each in term.
The English word “corruption” does double duty. Not only does it signify the type of casual mingling of public welfare and private profit that has become the hallmark of the Trump Administration after only two months. It also describes physical decomposition, as of a corpse.
Remember the marvelous line from Handel’s Messiah, “He did not suffer his holy one to see corruption
”? (emphasis added) In modern terms it means that God, by resurrecting Jesus, did not permit worms and maggots to gnaw, and bacteria to decompose, Jesus’ corpse.
The juxtaposition of these two concepts in a single word is a brilliant invention of the English language. For in the long run corruption of the financial/economic sort will do to a society what worms, maggots and bacteria do to an unprotected individual corpse. They change its character. They dissolve its structure. Eventually, they render it an unrecognizable mass of putrefaction.
Just like Tolstoy’s dysfunctional families—each unhappy in its own way—so each corrupted society decays in its own way. In ancient Rome, the businesses of its distinguished senators had accumulated massive debt
. The good senators used their political power to get the state to pay down that debt, in the process neglecting the needs of ordinary people, including the troops. This was an early form of “corporate welfare.”
The Roman senators’ feathering their own business nests undermined the state’s fiscal foundation, including its ability to wage war. They also destroyed the social cohesion of Rome’s people, which, like ours today, was one of the most diverse ever in the ancient world.
Is something similar happening here and now? For the answer, we must wait and see. At present, the process of corruption is more subtle and may be reversible.
In present-day America, we do not have massive corporate debt like ancient Rome. Our biggest and best corporations are earning record profits. They are getting so powerful that they are subsuming many of the functions that government used to perform
But if you look more closely, the picture doesn’t seem so simple. Our American corporate prosperity comes at a massive cost, much of which government pays. For the many corporations that are part of the military-industrial complex, those costs include the world’s overwhelmingly largest defense budget. For those that do not, the costs include massive subsidies and tax breaks, for example, for corporations that provide energy or build infrastructure.
There is nothing wrong, in principle, with a strong defense or government financing of vital infrastructure. But problems occur in the medium term, when interests, technologies and private owners become entrenched, their snouts snugly and permanently embedded in the public trough.
Do we still need to build to build and maintain a world-destroying arsenal of several thousand nuclear weapons, now that the Cold War is over? Do we still need depletion allowances and sweetheart land deals for the fossil fuel industries, which are inevitably on their way out as our species exhausts the supplies of fossil fuels
at accessible places in the Earth’s crust?
These unnecessary subsidies are counterproductive not only because they waste money that could be put to better use. They also entrench obsolete technologies and industries and grossly extend their otherwise natural lives. As part of those obsolescent industries, they entrench unimaginative, self-seeking and backward managers and owners in the nation’s economic leadership. They put the least qualified in charge.
Another path to corruption is more subtle still. It’s government-sponsored or government assisted monopoly.
It’s standard, classical economic theory
that monopoly, as compared to competition, reduces output and raises prices. The performance of monopoly’s first cousin, oligopoly, is similar. So a subtle way for government to “tax” a people, without their ever catching on, and to apply the tax to corporate welfare, is to encourage or permit private monopolies.
With the aid of government-sponsored or government-permitted monopoly or oligopoly, private corporations can impose supracompetitive pricing, making supranormal profits. But government can still insist it’s imposing no tax. “Look ma, no hands!”
Lest you think this practice is new, recall Queen Elizabeth I. She was one of the greatest leaders in human history, responsible for our practical, business-and-technology oriented Anglo-American culture. But in this respect, she was indeed ahead of her time. She found she could reward her loyal subjects for extraordinary contributions in war and peace, without raising general taxes, by granting them monopolies of common items of commerce. One such monopoly—on playing cards, granted to Lord Darcy—became the subject of a famous lawsuit
. The English courts declared it contrary to the common law; and a few years later, in 1623, the English Parliament passed the Statute of Monopolies, prohibiting them generally, except for patents and copyrights.
That statute was the world’s first antitrust law, now almost four centuries old. Today’s American
antitrust laws are far more specific, focused and effective—in theory. But they require the Executive Branch to enforce them and the courts to apply them to unforeseen new industries and technologies, such as software and the Internet.
To date our courts and Executive (even under Obama) have been ignorant and lax in suppressing monopolies in these new industries. Today no sentient person supposes that executives in the Trump Administration will do any better. Nor does anyone suppose that Neil Gorsuch will keep our antitrust laws moving forward to encompass the likes of Amazon, Google, Facebook and Twitter, let alone the growing hotel and airline oligopolies and the numerous cable and local-Internet monopolies that drain consumers’ pocketbooks every day.
So, no, unlike ancient Rome, we don’t have much direct payment of private corporate debt with tax money. Not yet. But we do have many ways in which government boosts private profit at its own expense or consumers’, and at the expense of a fairer and more economically efficient society. And now, with Trump as President, we have the unholy spectacle of hotels, lines of clothing, and the president’s own name being marketed internationally out of the White House.
With all these things happening—and while many of us still revere Ronald Reagan as the holy apostle of selfishness
as a national credo, can we really say we Yanks are free from debilitating corruption?
Abusing the troops
One of the chief causes of Rome’s fall was abusing its troops. Ancient Rome became a great empire on the backs of its citizen-soldiers. They were free men (all
warriors were men in those days), who fought out of patriotism and hope for a better life. If they returned alive and whole after twenty years of foreign wars, they would each get a plot a land, a farm and a home. Their victorious generals, of course, got whole provinces, and sometimes a seat in the Roman Senate.
As ancient Rome became more prosperous, more and more able-bodied citizens became merchants and artisans, who made good money. Fewer and fewer wanted to fight for the homeland. So slaves—mostly former opposing soldiers in foreign wars—became soldiers, on a promise of freedom and Roman citizenship after twenty years of military service.
That was a long time compared to our few years of conscription during our great Yankee wars, including Vietnam. But the ancient bargain worked. For an ordinary person not born to wealth or nobility, or for a conquered enemy left alive but enslaved, becoming a Citizen of Rome was a signal accomplishment, envied throughout the Western World. Its promise motivated hard fighting, and the length of service generated patriotism among newcomers.
Yet Rome’s wealth continued to wax. As it did, fewer and fewer actual Citizens of Rome became soldiers. More and more soldiers came from conquered peoples seeking to earn their spurs as citizens through military service. And then Rome began abusing them by bending the citizenship bargain, sending them into battle ill-equipped and ill-led, and sending them into ill-advised conflicts.
Not only that. Rome’s early form of corporate welfare waxed along with its prosperity. So Rome’s senators became preoccupied with their own financial worries, rather than their people, including soldiers returning home from foreign wars. Julius Caesar became the Rome’s first emperor, and turned Rome from democracy to empire, in part by promising loyal troops returning from foreign wars their traditional plots of land.
As the decades and centuries passed, foreign conscripts came to dominate the military. The land-for-service bargain became twisted and began to lapse. In what is now France and Spain, many of the abused troops were conquered Visigoths. They began to rebel; often they deserted. Eventually, many of them helped fellow Visigoths under Alaric sack Rome.
Are we Yanks marching down that long road to military perdition? Up through humanity’s most horrible war (World War II), we Yanks had citizen soldiers. In that very war we had near-universal conscription. Wealthy people’s sons might get out of service by political influence; but our old Civil-War rule of buying your way out for $300 (a princely sum then) had long been abolished.
Then came the war in Vietnam. It was a war we never should have fought—a war to keep a nation that we barely knew subject to Western colonialism. We fought for an abstraction, “freedom,” and against another abstraction, “Communism,” under a paranoid fantasy, the “Domino theory,” which all our own experts assured us was nonsense
The war was a bloody, brutal slog in which our troops became cynical, dissolute and sometimes murderous. Morale in our military services was lower than it had ever been. Many educated youth at home took every possible means, including emigrating to Canada, to avoid being drafted. Those who fought and died came largely from minorities and our “lower” classes.
After we lost and withdrew from what had been (then) our longest war ever, our leaders asked the wrong question. They didn’t ask themselves, “How can we avoid getting into unnecessary and unwise wars?” Instead, they asked themselves, “How can we wage wars that our people don’t really want to fight?” Their answer was to abolish the draft and institute our present “all-volunteer” army.
Are you already starting to see a resemblance between that step and what happened in ancient Rome? Of course the troops in Vietnam were not our “slaves.” But African-Americans, mostly the descendants of slaves, were among them in far greater proportions than in the general population. So were white people who couldn’t stay in university, couldn’t find a medical excuse, or couldn’t get a friendly member of Congress to get them safe National-Guard duty like Dubya’s.
When we switched to an all-volunteer army, guess who stayed in and continued to volunteer for service? Pretty much those same people—African-Americans still barred (on a statistical, not individual, basis) from good jobs in the civilian economy and “lower-class” uneducated whites with limited economic prospects. Plus there was a new class of recruits: undocumented or partially documented Hispanic immigrants seeking to earn their spurs as citizens through military service, just as Roman slaves and conquered peoples had done two millennia before.
Of course no historical analogy is perfect, let alone one that tries to tie strings across two millennia. There is an important difference in our immigrant-recruits’ favor: their terms of service can be a few as four years, rather than ancient Rome’s twenty.
But one important point of analogy is
unchanged over two millennia. When troops that fight don’t come from the mainstream of society, the temptation of leaders to abuse them can become overwhelming.
The very motivation for an “all-volunteer” army is a source of abuse: the desire to wage war without pushback from citizens. Not all of today’s volunteers join the military for lack of good opportunities elsewhere. But as we enter our sixteenth year fighting in Afghanistan and our fourteenth in Iraq, the risk of every recruit seeing brutal combat and coming home in a coffin or a cast is undiminished. Surely many of those who have other opportunities will take them.
As our “troop base” continues to devolve to those who lack nonmilitary economic opportunity—and whose families consequently lack political influence—the risk of leaders abusing them will only increase. President Trump’s recent decision to keep troop deployments secret only increases the risk: “out of sight, out of mind.”
There is a mound of evidence that abuse of our troops is actually happening. There were
the unconscionable delays, early on in Iraq, in providing anti-IED armor for Humvees and simple body armor for our troops—delays that cost many lives and injuries. There was a years-long delay in recognizing the reality of “Gulf War Syndrome” in Gulf I, likely caused by a combination of mandatory nerve-gas antidotes, the depleted uranium used in our anti-tank shells, and the massive oil-fire pollution from Saddam’s scorched-earth retreat from Kuwait. There was the memorable recent scandal of death-causing treatment delays in our Veterans Administration, still not resolved today. And there was and is the failure, until recently, to take seriously the growing phenomenon of PTSD and to research a physical cause and cure.
The rising call of “patriots” to increase the military budget and deploy more troops abroad, at the same time as they shortchange veterans coming home, has become a national scandal. But the simple fact is, when any proposed federal budget gets marked up, the rich, productive and influential always have the upper hand, even if what they are doing is fighting a decades-old “last war” like the Cold War. Thus does corruption lead inevitably to greater abuse of our all-volunteer troops: more foreign wars, less circumspection in entering them, less careful planning of military campaigns and deployments, more of the same-old expensive weapons and equipment, less of the new, and less careful treatment of veterans who need help when they come home.
By now, it should be apparent that the themes of this essay are all interlocked like parts of a wooden Chinese puzzle. Corruption feeds abuse of troops by draining money and resources away from their equipment, weapons and proper leadership. At the same time, the primary reason for having
an all-volunteer military force—minimizing citizen pushback on decisions to go to war—increases the risk of their unnecessary and even reckless use, and the risks of poor leadership and care during and after deployment.
Yet there is another entire dimension to this interlock: the question of group identity, i.e., race, ethnicity and (mostly for Muslims) religion.
Statistically, disfavored minorities are far out of proportion in our “all-volunteer forces” to their fractions of the overall population. The primary reason is obvious: members of disfavored minorities, having fewer good opportunities in the civilian economy, have a greater incentive than others to volunteer for military duty.
But there is also a more encouraging reason. Our military forces, with a better will and more hierarchical organizations than civilian companies, have done a better job of rooting out racism and bigotry than most civilian institutions. Thus a member of a disfavored minority is more likely to find work free from at least overt
prejudice and harassment in the military than outside it. That even appears to be true, or is at least becoming
true, for so-called “homophobia” (prejudice against homosexuals) and sexism.
All this only strengthens the interlock between our all-volunteer forces and our treatment of minorities. To the extent we treat minorities fairly and properly in our military but not elsewhere, we strengthen their incentive to fight for us. But if our civilian
treatment of minorities gets too rude, we risk alienating the very people who protect us from harm. We risk our own fighting force becoming Visigoths.
Right now, we seem to be far from that terrible tipping point. US citizenship is still so valuable that pregnant Chinese women try to come here to give birth, just to give their babies US passports.
And yet, and yet . . . The spate of recent killings of unarmed African-Americans, mostly children, by our white citizens and city police is a blot on our national reputation and our national morality. So is our president’s and his party’s trying to demonize the Black Lives Matter movement and tar it as anti-police, rather than pro-ordinary people.
Equally outrageous is our president’s and his party’s demonization of Hispanic immigrants, whether legal or illegal, plus Muslims and immigrants from majority-Muslim nations. For many reasons, including a desire to fight terrorism themselves, members of these minorities fight for us in proportions far greater than white, native-born Americans. We do not want to bite the hand that feeds us or disparage the hand that fights for us, lest we make our defenders enemies.
Abusing minorities has much the same effect whether or not it is government-sponsored or influenced. Outside the Deep South and some inner cities, there is little direct government sponsorship involved in abusing minorities today. But there is
some government pushback against stopping
abuse. One example is the recent effort by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to rescind consent decrees that were hard won by long litigation during the Obama Administration, and that force some city police departments to reform themselves and become less abusive of minorities.
Yet today private
abuse of minorities is far more important than governmental abuse. The rate of hate crimes and unprovoked attacks against innocent people has skyrocketed since Trump’s electoral victory. They include an unprovoked murder, and an assault on a senior, of (East) Indian ascent, motivating a sudden reassessment among Indians of the desirability of immigrating into the United States, and even US citizenship.
So much of our American “greatness” has depended, and still depends, on the favorable opinion of people in foreign countries, many of whom are not white, not Christian, or both. Our science and technology depend upon their willingness to immigrate
(at least temporarily), take the really hard STEM courses in our universities (which our native-born students are increasingly reluctant to do), and on graduation to join the ranks of our most creative and innovative workers in industry and in academia. And as we have seen, our all-volunteer military forces increasingly depend on immigrants willing to fight for us to secure the blessing of US citizenship.
Continuing to abuse minorities can stop both these salubrious processes dead in their tracks. If a single slip can ruin an individual reputation, think how quickly a thousands slips can bring down our Yankee image abroad. We can slide from the shining city on a hill to just another country full of bigotry and corruption. When and if that happens, our steady steam of eager immigrants, who perpetually renew us, fight for us and give us strength, may slow or come to a halt.
Avoiding and curtailing abuse of minorities ought
to be easy. It ought to be job one, for it’s entirely consistent with out national values, including our prime directive: “live and let live.”
Yet Donald Trump and the GOP have made winking and nodding at this abuse, if not actively encouraging it, a central pillar of their electoral campaigns. Now Trump has continued to lean on that shaky pillar in his governance. It’s hard to see what Trump or the GOP could do, save starting a needless war with Russia, that more directly threatens our following the downward path of ancient Rome.
People are strange animals. You can abuse them and neglect them. But as long as they have realistic hope—a promise of something better or of escape from something worse—they will follow you anywhere. They will even fight for you.
In an earlier essay
, I noted two extraordinary things that Americans did in the Second World War. Although we treated African-Americans as second-class citizens (and did so openly under “Jim Crow” laws down South), their sons (and a few daughters) risked life and limb to fight in Europe for the nation that was oppressing them.
The same was true of Japanese-Americans. While parents were Interned in concentration camps through the American West, their property confiscated and mostly lost forever, their sons were fighting valiantly for America in Europe. The all-Japanese-American 442d Brigade was one of the bravest and mostly highly decorated in all of World War II. Had General Patton not held it back, it would have be the first to capture Rome from the Nazis.
Why did these two racial minorities, subject to outright bigotry and legalized oppression at home, fight so hard for us abroad? I tried to answer that questions in my previous essay
. My conclusion was that it’s not the actual level or kind of treatment that matters, but how real and credible is the promise that it will improve in the future.
In World War II, African-Americans were sorely oppressed at home. But they had won their freedom from slavery in our nation’s bloodiest war, our Civil War. Toward the end of that war, many of them had actually fought for it. They had memories of that fight, and also of the brief period, during and after Reconstruction, of independent black politicians, businesses, newspapers, and universities. They knew what this nation could
promise and what its post-Civil-War (amended) Constitution did
promise. They fought hard for this nation in humanity’s most terrible war because, despite the terrible treatment they received at the time, they believed in the promise.
Japanese-Americans fought similarly. Many of them, or their parents, had come to our shores seeking opportunities, or fleeing lives in Japan that made them little more than surfs. They or their parents had crossed the world’s largest ocean to seek a new life with us, and they weren’t turning back. The promise of equal and just treatment, which they had read in our schools, gave them courage, even though it still was just a promise and not yet a reality for them.
In contrast, today the opposite has happened to the aging, Rust-Belt portion of our white working class. This was the prime demographic that voted for Trump.
These voters had lived most their lives with a promise that our nation eventually under-delivered. It had several aspects. First, it assured them a good life, without a college education
, as long as they worked hard. Second, it promised them lifetime employment with a single firm, a strong and reliable one that, like their state and nation, would last forever, or at least for their lifetimes. Third, it promised them self-respecting work, like making the cars and home appliances that every consumer wanted and that served as emblems of our postwar prosperity. Finally, it promised them a good industrial pension—in lieu of or in addition to Social Security—that would continue their good life well into a comfortable retirement.
None of these promises is credible today. The type of mostly manual labor that these workers had been doing passed on to machines and automation, or to skilled workers on better automated assembly lines. Or it passed to hungrier and lesser-paid foreign workers, once our plutocrats began selling our factories and technology abroad.
The firms that employed these workers turned out not to be so reliable: they got bought, sold, split up, merged and ground up like so much economic sausage. Some of their great trademarks, like RCA, Land Rover and Jaguar, became the property of foreign companies. Instead of the good old jobs making stuff that people used came jobs in a so-called “service” economy—working for others like servants. Finally, as I outlined in my earlier essay
, much-vaunted company pensions, for which these poor souls had worked all their adult lives, turned out to be noting more than promises, “downsize-able” or even voidable in bankruptcy.
The results of this vast and relatively sudden decline of promise are far more devastating than Trump’s mere election. We now have an epidemic of opioid abuse in precisely the areas most subject to this decline. There is also, for the first time ever in America among any
ethnic group, a decline in life span among this demographic, due partly to increased suicide.
Another cause is plausible, maybe even probable. I call it the “keeping up with the Joneses” hypothesis. The victims of the decline of these particular promises, who are mostly old and white, may be jealous and resentful of non-white and other minorities, who have seemed to receive more attention and more benefits from government than they. (We ignore for the moment that GOP and Fox propaganda have consistently exaggerated both the existence and the extent of these benefits.)
There may be a germ of truth in this hypothesis. But the primary cause of the angst and the decline among this cohort of white, non-college educated, former manual workers is not jealous bigotry. It’s not hate. It’s a real, tangible and distinctly negative change in their lives’ conditions and prospects over the last generation. Their jobs, their factories and their towns have “downsized” or evaporated. Their kids have left home and town to seek better futures in big cities, abroad, or in the military; so the older workers are left with little but memories, vain hopes and regret.
Sometimes, promises simply can’t be kept despite the best intentions. Sometimes people break them. The desperate state of the Trump voters arises from a combination of these two causes. Big firms simply couldn’t avoid the advent of automation or the foreign competition that inevitably arose as nations once devastated in World War II got back on their feet again. But they could
have avoided initiating
the transfer of American capital and technology to poor foreign countries in order to compete with their own American workers. And they certainly could have avoided downsizing promised pensions through legal maneuvers while, at the same time, adamantly resisting any expansion of Social Security and Medicare to take up the slack.
So the reasons for this declining promise are real. They are neither mental nor imaginary. They are, in fact, the central program of the political party that won the last presidential election and now controls Congress. And they have little to do, directly, with bigotry and inter-ethnic competition.
What we have here is an incidence of real and irremediable loss. The question is whether we let it spread, willy-nilly, throughout our society and ultimately let it erase the “American Dream” that sustained our African-Americans and the sons of our Interned Japanese, among many less pressed, through history’s most horrible war.
Like our own and ancient Rome’s, the ruling classes of great empires don’t grow strong from within. If left to themselves, they inbreed intellectually, culturally, and sometimes genetically. And as anyone who has ever studied genetics knows, inbreeding causes weakness and decay.
That’s why our biological evolution gave us two genders and the delights of love. The “randomness” and “surprise” of sexual attraction gives us continuing genetic diversity. If we wanted to inbreed, we could do it more easily by dividing, like amoebae or paramecia. But evolution abandoned that genetic dead end not far beyond the level of single-celled organisms.
The ruling classes of great nations often are like amoebae. They can achieve genetic and cultural diversity only by mutation. As they become rich, prosperous and powerful, they get smug, self-satisfied, self-righteous, fat, lazy and corrupt. And because of their riches and power, they fail to notice their own decay, thinking themselves superior, infallible and even immortal.
As these traits begin to define a dominant culture, it increasingly makes mistakes. It fails to innovate. It fails to stay flexible. It refuses to adopt the best of other cultures, thinking it knows all the answers.
Every great empire in human history found a way to delay, but not avoid, this cultural corruption. It did so by incorporating and assimilating non-dominant races, ethnic groups, and cultures.
The ancient Romans, the Chinese, and the Mongols did so primarily by conquest, and secondarily by immigration. The Romans and Mongols were noted for incorporating foreigners within their social hierarchy, and foreign ideas into their laws and culture. So was the Islamic Empire at its height—it became a magnet for Jews and other minorities, and it promoted them within its social structure. The Mongols and Muslims were also attracted by foreign science and technology; both cultures incorporated them, and their leaders, at the highest levels of their social structure.
History’s worst counterexample, of course, is Nazi Germany. Its philosophy of “Aryan” supremacy and racial purity led it to crush, expel, enslave and ultimately try to exterminate not just its own Jews—a vibrant commercial, artistic and scientific community including Albert Einstein. It also degraded and enslaved members of every foreign culture that it bested in battle, thereby enraging them and neglecting their talents and ingenuity. No wonder the “Third Reich” that Hitler promised would last a thousand years actually survived less than a dozen!
Another counterexample was Renaissance Spain. The Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella had good ideas on consolidating political power and developing political unity on the Iberian Peninsula. They even invented useful concepts of federalism, of which the “Dual Monarchy” of Ferdinand and Isabella themselves was just one example. But they also inbred culturally, mounting the Inquisition that ultimately expelled the vast majority of their Moors (Muslims), Jews and later Protestants. There are several reasons for Spain’s quick decline as the dominant European power, but surely the Inquisition and its ideological purity were two.
Restoring the American Dream and Yankee cultural incorporation will not be an easy matter, at least for now-disaffected segments of American society. It’s a real and present economic and structural problem. It will not yield to political orthodoxy, simplistic ideology, or bumper-sticker mantras like “freedom,” “choice,” “education,” “smaller government” or “America first!” It’s going to require creative and imaginative solutions from people with the ingenuity and tenacity of Elon Musk (an immigrant from South Africa), Jeff Bezos (an American son of a broken home brought up by a Cuban immigrant), and, yes, Steve Jobs (the biological son of a Syrian immigrant).
Walking the path of the Nazis and Spanish Inquisitors toward racial, religious and ethnic purity will not extend the past American Century. On the contrary, it will only accelerate our national decline, just as it has done for every human society that has tried it. We Yanks must learn from the failures and successes of others, or decline and suffer accordingly.
Restoring the American Dream will require the type of political
leadership that appears to have vanished from our nation (except for Obama, Sanders and Warren) during the last generation. It’s going to require the type of leadership that Trump’s voters expected of him but so far have not gotten.
Although the inbred decay of a corrupt and self-satisfied ruling class is not easy to fix, it’s very
easy to make worse. By emphasizing racial, ethnic and religious differences, and thereby rekindling prejudice and bigotry, our leaders could easily turn a gradual, secular decline into a rout. They could reduce us to the cultural equivalents of amoebae and paramecia.
This is precisely the tack that Trump and the GOP have taken to win our recent elections. It’s perhaps the most dangerous and outrageous political ploy since some America-firsters advocated allying with the Nazis before World War II.
We are a nation of immigrants and a melting pot. Like ancient Rome, we are a nation that has converted slaves into citizens. And many of us are still trying diligently to do so.
That is our nature and our destiny. Those are our values. If we set our diverse groups against each other and continue to incite hatred, disrespect and even violence among them, we can expect to experience a precipitous national decline somewhere between Rome’s after Alaric’s sacking and the Third Reich’s.
As Howard Zinn reports in his must-read People’s History of the United States
[at 253-295, 321-357], racism and racial division were never overt
policies of our ruling class, except in the Deep South. Our Northern industrialists simply fell into that approach by accident, because it worked to help quell labor unrest early in the last century. It was a desultory, impromptu strategy to fight unions.
But ever since Nixon’s disgraceful “Southern Strategy,” the GOP has quite self-consciously turned to racism and division to win elections. It did so with its fictitious “welfare queen” and Mitt Romney’s reference to “takers”—a veiled reference to minorities on welfare
. Even Daddy Bush got into the act, with his infamous “Willie Horton” ad, featuring a released black ex-convict.
Now Trump has won the White House not just by doubling down, but by tripling down. Not only has he dissed African-Americans at his rallies and in his speeches. He’s expanded the scope of bigotry to Mexican immigrants, American Judges of Mexican descent, and Muslims, i.e., members of our entire species’ second largest religious group (after Christianity).
Just as our Northern industrialists stumbled into bigotry as a means of fighting unions in the last century, Trump stumbled into it as a means of winning the presidency. Yet no one knows, for sure, how much it helped him win, or whether it might even have hurt him. Far more likely, as many polls has shown, the groups that nursed grievances over broken promises voted for Trump out of desperation, as a Hail Mary pass, because no one else seemed even to recognize their plight.
But whatever the reason he stumbled into it, Trump must now stumble out
of bigotry. If it consumes our public life, for the reasons stated above it will undermine our military and our defense no matter what hardware we have. It will shut off the flow of immigrants that keeps us strong and allow the lazy, sly, backward and well-connected among us to grow lazy and corrupt and yet prevail. It will set us against ourselves, so that our greatest effort will be spent in fighting each other, in elections, in the courts and possibly even in the streets. And it will, in time, create the greatest backlash against the Republican Party and its open and closet bigots that this nation has ever seen.
There are many things about President Trump that can lead a good citizen to despair. His administration so far has given new definition to the word “incompetence.” But there is one thing about Trump that can
foster hope: his ability to learn and change his mind.
Already he has changed his mind on Michael Flynn, a well-qualified military man who seemed to get crazier and more erratic the higher he rose in authority. Last week Trump also changed his mind, rather abruptly, on Syria, on Steve Bannon at the National Security Council, and on China, as least vis-à-vis North Korea.
Now he must change his mind once again. He must wipe bigotry from his and the GOP’s playbook and bring us all together. He must turn on the tap of immigration that, through continual cultural renewal, is the greatest source of our nation’s strength
. He must walk the path of ancient Rome, China and the Mongol and Islamic Empires at their heights and avoid the mistakes of Nazi Germany and the Spanish Inquisition. He must make the GOP a true party of unity, as it was when it began, in Lincoln’s day.
Trump can do this on his own. He owes nothing to Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, or any of the sixteen GOP opponents he crushed last year. He’s a New Yorker—a man who grew up in one of the greatest melting pots in America and in the world. It’s hard to believe that he really credits, as anything more than useful propaganda, the bigoted remarks the led him to his electoral victory.
If he wants to “Make America Great Again
,” and arrest the decline implicit in his own slogan, he must bring us all together and respect and value all of us, including the immigrants who continually renew and extend our strength. Only if he can do that, and do it well, can he have any hope of going down in history as slowing, rather than accelerating, our nation’s decline. The alternative is to appear in future history as an American Nero or Caligula.
One small reason why Romney lost was that the “taking,” at least of federal tax money on a statistical basis, had been done largely by the states and people who supported him