The Shift

1937, America’s first mobile television station (AP Photo, File)

Mark Leibovitch, chief national correspondent for the NYT Magazine recorded his impressions of Washington DC,  the town that melted down.  He paints a portrait of Sean Spicer trying to survive “in the shadow of a capricious force”.  He sketches John McCain, in a permanent funk “traveling the globe to the point of weariness, seemingly on a personal mission to reassure allies unnerved by Trump.” He describes the institutional Republicans walking around looking “as if they were bracing for a chandelier to drop on their heads”.  Most compelling of all are cameos of the bit players: the staff members, lobbyists, newspeople, policy wonks in permanent agitation, seeking almost religious consolation in the “old-normal rituals” of a world gone by — like the Congressional baseball game — only to see them turned into a shootfest by a Bernie groupie.


Is there no balm in Gilead?  None apparently.

Things used to reliably fail in Washington, Leibovitch recalls. “In 2013, I published a book called ‘This Town,’ an anthropological snapshot of the gilded, inbred carnival of early-21st-century Washington. It portrayed Washington as a permanent feudal village of bipartisan politicians, former officeholders, celebrity staff members, lobbyists, journalists, hangers-on and usual-suspects of all stripes. No one seemed to ever leave, because why would they? So-called change elections came and went — Obama in 2008, Tea Partyers in 2010 — but nothing seemed to change, except that the people involved seemed to grow richer. Washington kept celebrating itself while the rest of the country became more and more disgusted. The book’s original subtitle, ‘The Way It Works in Suck-Up City,’ reflected a city of norms, fixed positions and predictable guidelines. This was a static system, and you could always figure out how to game it if you stuck around or paid someone who did. This was the Swamp that Trump had promised to drain.”

But at least it was predictable.  Now this smug city has turned into a haunted  “Tokyo-on-the-Potomac” cowering in the capricious presence of a brooding Godzilla.  But maybe Trump isn’t Godzilla after all: only his shadow.  Mark Zuckerberg, on a visit to Williston, North Dakota described an encounter with a primitive force.  In his Facebook page Zuckerberg produced this dispatch from the frontier.


The invention of new techniques to fracture rock (fracking) to extract oil led to a boom where tens of thousands of workers moved from all around the country to pursue new jobs in this industry. … They come here because these are good jobs where people with a high school diploma can make $100,000 a year. … The school superintendent told me about how the school system went from shrinking and closing schools to surging from 500 to 1,500 students in less than a decade. …

When the Dakota Access Pipeline was approved, that removed $6-7 per barrel of cost from producing oil in the region, which brought more investment and jobs here. A number of people told me they had felt their livelihood was blocked by the government, but when Trump approved the pipeline they felt a sense of hope again. That word “hope” came up many times around this. One person told me the night the pipeline was approved, people lit fireworks and rode trucks with American flags down Main Street to celebrate.

It’s interesting to see this perspective when science overwhelmingly suggests fossil fuels contribute to climate change, which is one of the great challenges our generation will have to deal with.

Many people I talked to here acknowledged this, but also feel a sense of pride that their work contributes to serving real needs we all have every day — keeping our homes warm, getting to work, feeding us, and more. They believe competition from new sources of energy is good, but from their perspective, until renewables can provide most of our energy at scale, they are providing an important service we all rely on, and they wish they’d stop being demonized for it. …

I believe stopping climate change is one of the most important challenges of our generation. Given that, I think it’s even more important to learn about our energy industry, even if it’s controversial. I encourage all of you to get out and learn about all perspectives on issues you care about too. Regardless of your views on energy, I think you’ll find the community around this fascinating.


It was the portrait of two world views in conflict. But Zuckerberg’s post was also a glimpse into the flip side of the ‘town that melted down’.  The work camps that sprung up, the unemployed men who found jobs were the silver lining in Washington’s cloud.  CNN reported that U.S. oil production was booming from the trends Zuckerberg witnessed.

“In the years ahead, these developments position the U.S. to potentially be one of the 10 largest exporters of crude oil in the world,” wrote analyst Jenna Delaney. The major increase in supply would further undermine the strength of OPEC, which was exporting an average of 25 million barrels a day in 2016….

The U.S. vaulting into the top ranks of exporters would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. The U.S. had been out of the oil exporting business for 40 years when a ban on foreign shipments was lifted in 2015. …

The industry was hit hard by a dramatic collapse in oil prices in 2014. Production declined and major oil producers were forced to scale back investment.
But the crisis made the industry stronger by forcing operators to become much more efficient.

U.S. crude production been growing steadily, topping more than 9 million barrels a day in February, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The number of rigs in operation has more doubled from May 2016.

Leibovitch would not have been surprised.  “Washington kept celebrating itself while the rest of the country became more and more disgusted”.  Naturally things happened when the country was momentarily free to slip its leash. For good or ill Trump was a wrecking ball clearing away the “old-normal”.  Whether that would be boon or bane probably depends on how long the demolition goes on and whether anything rises from the wreckage.  Unfortunately there is no a priori way to distinguish between “creative destruction” and long-term decline.  They look too much alike at the start. For all too many “disruptive innovation” will be indistinguishable, in the short run at least, from unemployment.


The significance of Washington’s meltdown will hang on how adaptable the American politics proves to be. The Resistance so far has been less a call to rebuild Washington than the scream of someone having his leg amputated without anesthesia.  The GOP side is behaving like survivors shouting out a headcount after a collision to see who’s left alive. Among the Dems only Sanders is faintly stirring under the wreckage but ever more faintly.

The political system will have to better adapt to survive.  For good or ill Washington must learn to deal with a whole new global landscape thronged with kaiju: a challenging China, a thrusting Russia, trillions in debt and a restive domestic middle class.  They have not yet arrived inside the Beltway but their deep footsteps can be dimly heard.  Trump isn’t Godzilla, just the advance man.

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Support the Belmont Club by purchasing from Amazon through the links below.


Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer. This book recounts Foer’s year-long quest to improve his memory under the tutelage of top “mental athletes.” He draws on cutting-edge research, a surprising cultural history of remembering, and venerable tricks of the mentalist’s trade to transform our understanding of human memory. From the United States Memory Championship to deep within the author’s own mind, his journey reminds us that, in every way that matters, we are the sum of our memories.


Magnum! The Wild Weasels in Desert Storm: The Elimination of Iraq’s Air Defence, by Brick Eisel and James Schreiner. This book is based upon a journal Schreiner kept during his deployment to the Persian Gulf region for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Building on that record and the recollections of other F-4G Wild Weasel aircrew, the authors show a slice of what life and war was like during that time.

Rediscovering Americanism: And the Tyranny of Progressivism, Author Mark Levin revisits the founders’ warnings about the perils of overreach by the federal government and makes an impassioned plea for a return to America’s most sacred values. He analyzes the troubling question of America’s future, and reminds readers what they must restore for the sake of their children and their children’s children.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

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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