January 13, 2021

AMERICA’S YELTSIN MOMENT:

The first US presidential election after the collapse of the USSR almost rendered the same verdict on the regime in Washington. The 1992 election saw a populist challenge to President George H.W. Bush from within his own party. Pat Buchanan didn’t win any primaries, but his performance in the early contests suggested that up to a third of the GOP had lost faith in the incumbent. Buchanan not only took on Bush the politician, he assailed the politics of the Bush party: foreign interventionism of the sort that had seemingly gone so well in the Gulf War a year earlier; trade policies that had hurt American manufacturing jobs; and a lackluster commitment to fighting what Buchanan characterized as a ‘culture war’ with the ideological left.

Bush and Bushism survived the encounter with Buchanan only to face another populist insurgency in the general election. The billionaire H. Ross Perot was as unexpected an element in the 1992 contest as Donald Trump would be in the 2016 race. Perot imploded but Bush lost anyway. The man who beat him, Bill Clinton, was a self-styled New Democrat and, at just 46, the third-youngest president in history. The 1992 election was nowhere near as dramatic as the events that brought an end to the Soviet Union a year earlier. But in the US as in the USSR, the old politics had lost its grip on legitimacy. The public asked for a fresh start, if not, in our case, for a new constitution. The fall of the curtain on 42 years of Democratic control in the House of Representatives after the 1994 midterm elections drove home the point. An era had closed.

The new era that began in Russia with Boris Yeltsin soon proved bitterly disappointing. Oligarchs and gangsters stripped the nation’s wealth. Small wars could not be won, and a great power’s foreign policy became an ongoing embarrassment. Life expectancy declined. Mutatis mutandis, does this sound strangely familiar?

Yeltsin was something of a liberal, at least compared with what came after him. Since the end of the Cold War, America’s leadership has been nothing but liberal — left-liberal or neoliberal or, as some Republican publicists like to say, ‘classical liberal’, but liberal through and through. Even Trump was no radical departure from this: one of his signal achievements, after all, was a free-trade deal, the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement. He started no new wars, but the unwinnable old war in Afghanistan stretches into its 20th year.

Trump was the mildest of corrections to the failures of post-Cold War liberalism after a quarter century of its monopoly on American politics. Yet he was treated by liberals in the media and intelligentsia as if he were authoritarianism personified — and, of course, the puppet of an actual authoritarian in Moscow. If this is how American liberals respond to the least of populist reforms, one cannot expect our Yeltsin-like ruling class to so much as recognize its own mistakes, let alone atone for them.

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