The once and future thing

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Elon Musk  observed that “brand is just a perception, and perception will match reality over time. Sometimes it will be ahead, other times it will be behind. But brand is simply a collective impression some have about a product.”  When Time Magazine reported the Davos elite had decided that America No Longer Matters, it is proper to ask ‘what no longer mattered?  The perception of America or the reality’? “A year after Trump’s election raised the prospect of revolution, the elites have regained their confidence. The revolt had been put down, stock markets are up, and globalism is making a comeback.”


The reality of America can be made by measured by comparing it to the power relationships at the moment when the US became the Leader of the Free World.  The United Nations Security Council of 1945 is a snapshot of the victors frozen in time, like a high school yearbook photograph.  In that picture the Soviet Union still had its hair;  it was a great power, perhaps even the greatest if America’s nascent A-bomb capability could be discounted.

For one thing Moscow had hordes.  Hitler invaded it with less than half the manpower pool of the USSR; a population of 69 million to Stalin’s 170.  The US population was respectable, but not dominant by comparison:  148 million in 1939.  In material terms Germany and the USSR were about equal in GDP at the start of the contest.  While America’s economy was larger, it was only a little more than twice as large as either.

In the intervening 80 years the powers aged differently.   Russia’s population dropped to 144 million (down from 170 in 1939),  Germany posted a modest increase (82 million up from 69) — but it was America that had grown to a whopping 323 million people.  Materially too the discrepancy was vast.  By 2017 the US had 5.3 times the GDP of Germany and 13 times that of Russia. Most tellingly the US leads in all the industries of the 21st century, fields not surprisingly considered the “greatest threats” to humankind.  It was a circumstance which led Pravda to declare that “SpaceX makes ‘one giant leap for mankind’ as Russia loses the space race”.

With 21st century USA so impressively massive how could it be said that “America No Longer Matters?” The only way to reconcile the paradoxical collapse of the American brand with its physical ascendancy is to consider the possibility it is Washington which has become a cipher. The media conflates the two even while it daily paints DC in a coat of shame.  It is not that Russia can somehow control the colossus but the possibility that Washington has become an ineffectual and corrupt imperial capital, the plaything of bag men, ex-spies, influence peddlers and foreign agents that explains the emptiness of the place.


The contrasts are striking.  Despite a system of classification so extensive there’s actually a backlog of 700,000 security clearances Washington is daily leaking the conversations of the president, federal agents like a sieve.  The monumental capital is curiously impotent, unable to protect classified databases involving millions.  It cannot build a wall along its borders.  Like a defective watch it stops working at unpredictable intervals. Even when warned that foreign enemies  are going to hack or geopolitically challenge it, it does nothing, preferring masterful inactivity to taking the slightest public relations risk.

Yet this curious zeroing out was predicted almost 200 years ago by Alexis de Tocqueville who warned the democracies could die, not from tyrants but via a stifling, schoolmarmish bureaucracy called soft despotism.

I think that the type of oppression by which democratic peoples are threatened will resemble nothing of what preceded it in the world … I want to imagine under what new features despotism could present itself to the world; I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.

It would resemble paternal power if, like it, it had as a goal to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary it seeks only to fix them irrevocably in childhood … After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd …

it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.


De Tocqueville’s passage jumps out at the reader especially if he’s just been perusing the annals of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).  “In a government full of busy agencies, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) may well be the busiest. But don’t fret for its bureaucrats. In between bullying corporations and funneling vast sums of money to left-wing activist groups, the agency has also managed to undertake one of the federal government’s most outrageous office decorating projects to the tune of more than $200 million of taxpayer funds.”

Nor is it hard to think of the de Tocqueville’s thesis when reading the New York Times on the subject of regulatory reform. “WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has adopted new limits on the use of ‘guidance documents’ that federal agencies have issued on almost every conceivable subject, an action that could have sweeping implications for the government’s ability to sue companies accused of violations.”

Guidance documents offer the government’s interpretation of laws, and often when individuals or companies face accusations of legal violations, what they have really violated are the guidance documents. Defense lawyers say the change in policy gives them a powerful tool to fend off allegations of wrongdoing against their clients.

It also advances a goal declared by President Trump in his first days in office: to reduce the burden and cost of federal rules and requirements. But consumer advocates say the move will crimp enforcement of crucial protections.

It’s the portrait of a vast machine endlessly whirring, yet bent on doing nothing.


Political scientists have given de Tocqueville’s observation the name soft despotism, “describing the state into which a country overrun by ‘a network of small complicated rules’ might degrade. Soft despotism is different … in the sense that it is not obvious to the people. Soft despotism gives people the illusion that they are in control, when in fact they have very little influence over their government. … de Tocqueville observed that this trend was avoided in America only by the ‘habits of the heart’ of its 19th-century populace.”

Despite the enormous increase of American wealth and power since 1945 perhaps it is those “habits of the heart” that are missing.  The essential thing missing from America’s 1945 Security Council photo is invisible to the eye.  People still look inside the Beltway to find something they once remembered and find nothing at all.  But foreign influence peddlers see a blank slate on which they are eager to impose their will.

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The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, In this book, bestselling historian Max Boot chronicles the life of legendary CIA operative Edward Lansdale and reframes our understanding of the Vietnam War. Lansdale pioneered a “hearts and minds” diplomacy, first in the Philippines, then in Vietnam, a visionary policy that was ultimately crushed by America’s giant military bureaucracy. With interviews and newly available documents, Boot rescues Lansdale from historical ignominy and suggests that Vietnam could have been different had we only listened.


The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus, Retracing his own spiritual journey from atheism to faith, author Lee Strobel, former legal editor of the Chicago Tribune, cross-examines a dozen experts who are recognized authorities in their own fields. He challenges them with questions like, How reliable is the New Testament? Does evidence for Jesus exist outside the Bible? Is there any reason to believe the resurrection was an actual event? The book reads like a captivating, fast-paced novel but it’s not fiction. It’s a riveting quest for the truth about history’s most compelling figure.

Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission, by Hampton Sides. On January 28, 1945, 121 hand-selected U.S. troops slipped behind enemy lines in the Philippines. Their mission: March 30 rugged miles to rescue 513 POWs languishing in a hellish camp, among them the last survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March. This book vividly re-creates this daring raid, offering a minute-by-minute narration that unfolds alongside intimate portraits of the prisoners and their lives in the camp.

The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook, by Niall Ferguson. The 21st century has been hailed as the Networked Age. But in this book, Ferguson argues that social networks are nothing new. From the printers and preachers who made the Reformation to the freemasons who led the American Revolution, it was the networkers who disrupted the old order of popes and kings. Far from being novel, our era is the Second Networked Age, with the computer in the role of the printing press. Once we understand this, both the past and the future start to look very different indeed. Ferguson offers a whole new way of imagining the world.


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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