Snakes and Ladders

One of the discontents in 2016 was the belief that Washington no longer worked for the voters.  There was a perception that politicians preferred the employ of lobbyists and interest groups such as Russia, Saudi Arabia and China. Both parties were pushing agendas often at the behest of foreign potentates, including supposedly private outfits like the Clinton Foundation, because We Are the World.


There was no shame attached to this.  Everyone had become an internationalist.  In all the trendy places it was cool to speak glowingly of a global bridges and uncouth to talk of walls.  One talked of Europe; never a country in Europe.  To become a child of the world became normative.  There was even a name for those who didn’t get with the program. Hillary referred to them as the Deplorables, the holdouts, the men who time had passed by.  The phrase had a brief vogue before it was replaced by newer terms: populist, reactionary, supremacist.  They all meant the same thing: a class of provincials that politicians no longer felt a compulsion to serve and free to ignore and, if necessary, remold.

The issue of loyalty bubbled its way to the surface again via the Podesta phishing incident. Suddenly the Hand which had always been there was recognized as reprehensible. Zounds, Governor Romney! It’s giving someone a reach-around! Didn’t I tell you how the Russians were not our friends at all?  Didn’t I tell you all along? It was the sudden awakening that was remarkable.  That should have been the news.

There was a gnashing of teeth and rending of garments but the question of preserving the democratic client-agent relationship was hard to tackle in part because the terms had been eroded.  The forced debate in old language made the political dialogue sound dubbed, like a re-run from Golden Age TV, as if Joe McCarthy had suddenly returned from the grave a Democrat while the Rosenbergs were reborn into the Trump Towers.  It also created an impression that the foundations have been collapsing for a long time.


Was loyalty to the liberal cause the same as loyalty to the Deplorables? Was the enemy of the rule-based world order also the enemy of America? What was America anyway in the post-racial, post-cultural, post-national world where intuition was no sure guide?   If one had to define loyalty again beyond a purely legalistic adherence to an arbitrary chain of command how would one do it?

Maybe the first political task after the realization of foreign subversion is to rediscover loyalty, what it means, who it is owed to.  It is telling that it may take years.  But there are some starting points.  It’s important to observe that treason is highly correlated with decline and decadence; betrayal is the occupational disease of the losing side, often just another name for opportunism. Quisling, Laval, Petain etc, crossed over to what they assumed was the future when they lost faith in their present and panicked to save their hides. Even the British Cabinet was tempted during the May 1940 Crisis to bow to the virile Reich. Only the irrational stubbornness of Winston Churchill stood in the way.

Even Winston needed a prop and so had to speak of victory, the surest shield against treachery that there is. Treason thrives in an atmosphere of decay and perpetual retreat. Patriotism grows by contrast in a climate of pride, self confidence and success.  No winner betrays himself. Given the psychological connection between treason and opportunism the best policy is to BE the winning side and perceived as such.

Yet for many years the West pursued a passivity amounting almost to a method.  As Jeffrey Goldberg noted in his recent interview with Henry Kissinger Obama’s doctrine was “about protecting the world from America”. It was decades long project designed to get itself out of the way and to all appearances succeeded.  But loyalty to a cause is only meaningful if you have a cause, when you want to win.  Otherwise it’s meaningless. If you don’t want to win, loyalty is undefined, in the same way that convexity is elusive without the concept of an interior or exterior. For all too long the Western elite has declared it itself above the fray, in other words proclaimed a vacuum.  In a ring with no corners where do you go when the bell rings?


The central paradox of the liberal world is its compulsion to be inclusive while simultaneously denying the existence of an inside or an outside.

As a practical matter reforming Washington requires the rediscovery of a purpose more specific than merely greasing the wheels of the political sausage machine. All client-agent relationships must either be particular or meaningless.  The last 8 years have been one of endless psychological retreat. The descent of Russians into the midst of that emptiness is not only unsurprising but inevitable. The power vacuum which devastated America’s overseas alliances are ripples of an implosion that began at the center itself.  Perhaps the last word on betrayal should go to Kim Philby.  The Cambridge spies betrayed Britain during its imperial decline because it had suddenly become too small for men who imagined themselves born to rule.  A BBC retrospective on the Philby captured his opportunism.  England had left him with nowhere else to go.

But if Philby betrayed, he was also betrayed, not by others, but by his own love of power and the conviction that he had joined an elite that had history on its side.

The idea that he had been recruited by a highly-selective and superior organisation was important to Philby. Defending his decision to become a Soviet agent in the Foreword to My Secret War, the memoir of his career as a spy that was published in 1968, he wrote, “One does not look twice at an offer of enrolment in an elite force.”

“Elite” is the name of the country ambitious men find on the day they cast off the old.  For people who only ascend ladders, betrayal is just another rung they haven’t climbed.


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Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill, by Candice Millard. While this is a thrilling narrative of Winston Churchill’s extraordinary and little-known exploits during the Boer War, it is more than an adventure story, for the lessons Churchill took from the Boer War would profoundly affect 20th-century history.

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick. An account of the middle years of the American Revolution, and the tragic relationship between George Washington and one of his favorite generals, Benedict Arnold – an impulsive but sympathetic hero whose misfortunes at the hands of self-serving politicians fatally destroy his faith in the legitimacy of the rebellion. As a country wary of tyrants suddenly must figure out how it should be led, Washington’s unmatched ability to rise above the petty politics of his time enables him to win the war that really matters.

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Author Nancy Isenberg upends history as Americans know it by taking on their comforting myths about their class-free society and exposing the existence, from the time of the earliest British colonial settlement to the present, of the white underclass.

Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya, by William Carlsen. This is the unforgettable true story of the discovery of the ancient Maya. Enduring disease, war, and the torments of nature and terrain, American diplomat John Lloyd Stephens and British artist Frederick Catherwood meticulously uncovered and documented the remains of an astonishing civilization that had flourished in the Americas at the same time as classic Greece and Rome — and had been its rival in art, architecture, and power.


The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. This is an epic, moving history of a scientific idea coming to life, a story driven by human ingenuity and obsessive minds – from Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel to Francis Crick, James Watson and Rosalind Franklin, and the thousands of scientists still working to understand the code of codes.

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Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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