The big story over the holidays, in the transition from 2018 to 2019, is the first beginnings of the Trumpocalypse.
When Donald Trump was elected, a lot of us predicted disaster, and so far it seems that the disaster has not come. But the consequences of this presidency are still unfolding, and in the last month there have been signs that things are starting to crack apart.
First there was the death of The Weekly Standard, which I argued was killed by the right’s increasing indifference to big ideas in the Trump era.
Then there was the announcement, shortly before Christmas, of Trump’s plan to withdraw the relatively small number of troops we have in Syria working with local allies like the Kurds to destroy the remnants of the Islamic State. The problem is not just the decision itself, though I agree with David French that if we declare victory and go home now, we’re probably going to have to come back later under less favorable conditions. More recently, National Security Advisor John Bolton seems to agree, describing the withdrawal as being on a “timetable” that is dependent on other factors, such as the fact that Turkey’s intervention in Syria must guarantee the safety of the Kurds. If you understand the history of the region, you understand that this is a great recipe for signaling American weakness and lack of resolve while not actually withdrawing our troops—the worst of both worlds.
What is more important than the withdrawal itself is the fact that it was done against the advice of Trump’s top military advisors and without coordinating with them. This decision, as with many other major policy initiatives, was made by tweet.
The result was an exodus of top foreign policy officials, led by Secretary of Defense James Mattis. The New York Times sums up the reasons for their objection.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other top national security officials argued that a withdrawal would, essentially, surrender Western influence in Syria to Russia and Iran…. Abandoning the Kurdish allies, the officials argued, also would cripple future American efforts to gain the trust of local fighters for counterterrorism operations, including in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
Those are pretty good reasons, which were stated to the president and completely ignored. Early on, the thing that reassured me most about the Trump administration was his choice of top national security personnel—people like H.R. McMaster and James Mattis. So I take seriously what Mattis said in his resignation letter.
One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies….
Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions—to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies. That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.
My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.
Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.
In other words, the outgoing Secretary of Defense believes that the president is soft on our adversaries and disrespectful to our allies.
It’s not just Mattis. All of Trump’s generals, with whom he initially had a particular fascination, are now gone. A former admiral comments on one of the reasons why.
In the military, we say the first duty of an officer is to bring order out of chaos. I’m glad that the generals stepped into the breach. But in the end, each of them had to ask himself, At what point does my serving in this White House become less a guardrail and more an enabler?
But he also describes a deeper reason.
The president famously does not actually read the voluminous policy papers with which he is presented. From the perspective of a senior military mind, this would be akin to a car refusing to be gassed up. According to multiple reported accounts, Trump’s briefings have to be put in the simplest terms; the traditional complex military PowerPoint slides were anathema to him. The military presents its shared wisdom by detailing a traditional set of information: assumptions, existing conditions, courses of action, centers of gravity and, in the end, the ultimate three options suggested to the decisionmaker; the president prefers to go with his gut. This made for a continuous collision between the president and his generals.
We can see this in the fact that Trump initially praised Mattis after his resignation because he hadn’t even read his resignation letter—then began hitting him with mean tweets after he gathered from television commentary that Mattis had rebuked him. Or there’s the fact that in Trump’s disgruntled tweets he said he didn’t know another official who resigned in protest: Brett McGurk—the man who was in charge of America’s anti-ISIS campaign, this administration’s one big foreign policy accomplishment. Or there is the fact that Trump defended his decision to withdraw by declaring that it is “time for others to finally fight.” America has lost four troops in the Syria campaign over several years. Our Kurdish allies have lost 10,000 . You tell me who is already doing the fighting.
So it’s not just that this is a bad decision. It’s the fact that it is a decision made by someone who is completely ignorant of the basic facts—and who has demonstrated no interest in learning. (Which is precisely what some of us warned about.) If you still don’t believe this, check out Trump’s latest doozie: declaring that Russia was right to invade Afghanistan in 1979 because it was fighting terrorists. Here is the central passage of the Washington Post‘s fact check.
The Soviet Union ventured into Afghanistan as part of its effort to prop up communism abroad, not because terrorists were striking the Soviet homeland. “The most shameless Soviet propagandist never claimed that Afghan terrorists were attacking Russia,” said Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University. “You can read all Soviet media in the 1980s and never find anything this ridiculous.”
The only person I can think of who might be pushing this line today is Vladimir Putin, who would want to rewrite history to justify Soviet imperialism. Make of this what you will.
If President Trump is no longer listening to his generals, who is he listening to? According to some reports, it’s Rand Paul, who has stopped pretending to be the more reasonable version of his father and has been increasingly strident in promoting Ron Paul’s blame-America-first foreign policy.
Even this doesn’t quite capture Trump’s outlook, because he is not a strident libertarian anti-interventionist. Ultimately, the one thing I have written about Trump that has proved most prescient is that trade war is Trump’s foreign policy. You can see that in his complaint—on Twitter, of course—that “We are substantially subsidizing the Militaries of many VERY rich countries all over the world, while at the same time these countries take total advantage of the US, and our TAXPAYERS, on Trade. General Mattis did not see this as a problem. I DO, and it is being fixed!” So the problem with our Secretary of Defense was that he was not willing to sacrifice our key national security goals for the sake of Trump’s trade war.
Part of Trump’s trade war mentality is his fixation on the supposed threat of immigration. So while our troops will be abandoning the fight against ISIS to someone else, they will be sent to build the wall to guard against the threat of Mexican day-laborers. If you read that tweet—and it’s not my fault that Twitter is now the main conduit through which the president of the United States makes his decisions—you will notice that he is now claiming that his renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement, which is virtually identical to the old one but with a new name, is going to bring extra money to America, so this counts as making Mexico pay for the wall. Except of course, that they are not paying for it. This is why we are currently in a federal government shutdown in a futile attempt to force the incoming Democratic House majority to appropriate funds for the wall.
Note that Donald Trump did not push a government shutdown to demand a cut in government spending. (That was the policy of the old Republican leaders, like John Boehner, who we were told were weak and useless.) He only shut it down to get the wall. Trade war and opposition to immigration are Trump’s only real policy priorities, and everything else is being sacrificed to them.
But that’s not the most important sign of the Trumpocalypse. The more ominous sign is that a lot of the right is following Trump’s lead.
This brings us to the last of the big warning signs. Former presidential candidate and incoming Senator Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed criticizing Donald Trump’s character and some of his recent decisions. That triggered a long and vitriolic response from Tucker Carlson. Carlson is not just a random conservative commentator. He is the leading host at Fox News, in its most prominent 8:00 PM slot, a position he has been elevated to because of his role as a Trump apologist. So what he says is a leading indicator of the ideological direction of the Trump-era right.
Ignoring everything Romney said about character or morality, about foreign policy or domestic tribalism, Carlson denounced Romney—and, by extension, other Trump critics on the right—for promoting free markets. No, really.
Mitt Romney refers to unwavering support for a finance-based economy and an internationalist foreign policy as the “mainstream Republican” view. And he’s right about that. For generations, Republicans have considered it their duty to make the world safe for banking, while simultaneously prosecuting ever more foreign wars. Modern Democrats generally support those goals enthusiastically….
The idea that families are being crushed by market forces seems never to occur to [the “ruling class”]. They refuse to consider it. Questioning markets feels like apostasy….
[T]he pathologies of modern rural America are familiar to anyone who visited downtown Baltimore in the 1980s: Stunning out of wedlock birthrates. High male unemployment. A terrifying drug epidemic. Two different worlds. Similar outcomes. How did this happen? You’d think our ruling class would be interested in knowing the answer. But mostly they’re not. They don’t have to be interested. It’s easier to import foreign labor to take the place of native-born Americans who are slipping behind….
Here’s a big part of the answer: male wages declined. Manufacturing, a male-dominated industry, all but disappeared over the course of a generation. All that remained in many places were the schools and the hospitals, both traditional employers of women…. Over big populations, this causes a drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births, and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow—more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation.
If you care about America, you ought to oppose the exploitation of Americans, whether it’s happening in the inner city or on Wall Street….
Republican leaders will have to acknowledge that market capitalism is not a religion…. Any economic system that weakens and destroys families is not worth having. A system like that is the enemy of a healthy society.
This diatribe is filled with giant lies, such as the claim that US manufacturing has “disappeared” or that teen marijuana use is rising (neither one is true), along with howlers like Carlson’s conspiracy theory that marijuana is being legalized because our politicians are in the pocket of Big Reefer. (David French has a good response that tackles these factual inventions.)
But this is all recognizable as a classic anti-capitalist screed, down to the fact that Carlson closes by warning us that we have to embrace a whole new suite of regulations—he gives absolutely no details about what they would be—in order to avoid the prospect of the masses turning toward “socialism.” That’s the sort of thing FDR used to say: that big government and the welfare and regulatory state were “saving” capitalism from an imaginary workers’ uprising. It’s the tactic of using communism as a bogeyman in order to make your own assaults on capitalism look moderate and reasonable.
In Carlson’s case, this anti-capitalist agenda is dressed up in some conservative language about family and tradition—but then again, FDR sometimes did that, too. Oh, and he also throws out phrases about “importing foreign labor to take the place of native-born Americans,” which treads perilously close to the “white genocide” hysteria of the alt-right. Then again, FDR’s Democrats were still segregationists.
This is exactly what we feared from the Trump era: the American right is being turned toward European-style collectivist nationalism. It offers all the big government anti-capitalism of the economic collectivists and all the meddling social agenda of the religious right.
I’ve had debates with some of you about the merits of “nationalism,” about whether it is just synonymous with “patriotism” and whether there is a pro-liberty version of nationalism. If there is, this isn’t it. This is good old-fashioned collectivist nationalism, in which the good of “the nation” as a collective—usually defined in racial, ethnic, and religious terms—is regarded as the central political goal to which the rights and freedom of the individual must be sacrificed. This is precisely the kind of nationalism that is gaining a bigger foothold in Europe, and the big news for 2019 is that we’re going to have to mount a spirited defense against it here before people like Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson make it the dominant ideology of the American right—all while the Democrats veer farther toward outright socialism.
This is bad and, judging from the amount of support Carlson has gotten online and the number of “economic nationalists” coming out of the woodwork, it is going to get worse. What to do?
For my book on Atlas Shrugged, I recently did a close reading of Vaclav Havel’s historic 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” which provided the blueprint for resistance to Communism in Eastern Europe. No, I’m not getting overdramatic and saying that we need to act as if we’re resisting an actual dictatorship. Instead, what struck me is that a lot of Havel’s advice also applies to figuring out how to provide a voice for sanity in a culture that is moving in the opposite direction.
The essence of his advice is the idea of “living within the truth”—deciding independently what you think is true and what is the best way to live, then living it, forging your own separate communities to do that, if necessary. (I think you can start to get an idea of how this connects to Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged.)
This is what I plan to do more of in 2019. I will criticize Donald Trump as circumstances require, and I expect that things are going to get steadily worse. But the more important necessity is to live within the truth: to focus on clearly identifying what is going on in the world and what is true and right, and to keep that knowledge alive and vibrant, as an ideological base and alternative to the surging collectivist fad on both the left and the right.
If the Trumpocalypse really does arrive, this is going to be the only way to survive it.