America needs something better than a feedback loop for popular resentment. We need a real leader. America’s elite is arrogant and corrupt, but the state of the American people is just as alarming. America had 90% adult literacy in 1790, when only half of Englishmen and a fifth of Spaniards and Italians could sign their names. We had the best educated, most motivated, and healthiest workforce in the world by an overwhelming margin.
Now Americans aged 16 to 24 rank at the bottom of a 22-country evaluation of numeracy, literacy, and technological problem-solving.
Poor student performance should be no surprise: America’s family structure is falling apart. Nearly 30% of non-Hispanic white children are born out of wedlock, as well as 53% of Hispanics and 73% of African-Americans. When Reagan took office, 18% of all American births were to unmarried mothers. By 2014 the figure was above 40%.
Catch-up ball doesn’t begin to describe our predicament. We need nothing short of a great national turnaround. There are two Republican candidates who made clear from the outset that it isn’t business as usual — Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Another Romney wouldn’t be relevant.
Our elites, to be sure, have sold us down the river. There’s unlimited capital for investors to buy foreclosed homes, while half of Americans can’t raise a down payment or qualify for a home mortgage. The Pentagon and the defense contractors slated a trillion dollars for the F-35, the biggest lemon in the history of military aviation, crowding out every other acquisition program in the military. Our tech companies have become a conspiracy to suppress innovation, managed by patent trolls instead of engineers. The financial industry ran the biggest scam in history, the subprime bubble of the 2000s, and the Obama administration hasn’t sent a single miscreant to jail (it just slapped multi-billion dollar fines on the banks’ stockholders, that is, your pension fund or 401k). The Clintons are a criminal enterprise, as Peter Schweizer showed in his book Clinton Cash. The foreign policy establishment treated the world like a giant social experiment and wasted blood and treasure to make the world safe for democracy.
The result is the most corrupt and cartelized economy in American history. For the first time since numbers were kept, new business has contributed next to nothing to employment recovery since 2009, as I reported here March 2. But Donald Trump encourages magical thinking. Repeating, “We’re going to make America great again” by kicking out Mexican illegals and repatriating jobs from China is nonsense.
Our elites are rotten, but the people are hurting and confused. After the generation of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, America has done a terrible job of forming elites. But we still need leaders who can uplift us, teach us, and inspire us. Self-educated outsiders like Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan have been our ablest leaders, not the valedictorians of Harvard or Yale. Lincoln might have been self-educated, but he was the best thinker of his generation. Reagan also was self-taught, but he had a broad and detailed grasp of foreign policy and understood Robert Mundell’s supply-side economics early on. They were also profoundly good men.
Ted Cruz is the a gifted outsider with unique leadership capacities. He has a brilliant grasp of Constitutional law from his service as Texas’ solicitor general, a granular understanding of business economics from his service at the Federal Trade Commission, and a clear vision of what America should and shouldn’t do in foreign policy. He was an academic superstar at Ivy League universities but never let his success flatter him into complacency. He has deep religious conviction. He also has the will to lead. It’s not surprising he isn’t popular among his Senate colleagues: if Cruz is elected president, it will shut down a corrupt and cozy game. He has the brains to understand the problem and the guts to clear the obstacles to a solution.
Donald Trump’s popularity rests on his knack for handling politics as reality television. Americans always have distrusted elites, but today’s popular culture takes this to a pathological extreme. We find it oppressive to admire anything that is better than us. Instead, we identify with what is like us. That’s why we listen to singers who sound like an average drunk with a karaoke machine instead of Frank Sinatra. That’s why reality TV is so popular. Everybody gets to be a star. We like to watch ourselves in the mirror. This blend of narcissism and resentment is toxic. Trump’s bling-and-babes lifestyle has become a national paradigm for success. We’re not Trump’s constituents; we’re a virtual posse.
We keep hearing that Trump is a businessman who will “get things done.” That is utterly wrong: the most successful businessmen are very good at very limited number of things. Great entrepreneurs, as George Gilder wrote, are the kind of people who sit up all night thinking of better garbage routes. Trump is not even a particularly successful entrepreneur; if he had put the $100 million he inherited in 1978 into an index fund, he’d have twice as much money today. As a casino investor, he doesn’t compare to Sheldon Adelson, who came from poverty and now has ten times Trump’s wealth. In fact, Trump has the worst possible kind of background for a president: as the child of wealth running a private company, he is used to saying “Jump,” and having his lackeys say, “How long should I stay in the air?”
Trump doesn’t read. He brags about his own ignorance. Journalist Michael d’Antonio interviewed Trump at his New York home and told a German newspaper:
“What I noticed immediately in my first visit was that there were no books,” says D’Antonio. “A huge palace and not a single book.” He asked Trump whether there was a book that had influenced him. “I would love to read,” Trump replied. “I’ve had many best sellers, as you know, and ‘The Art of the Deal’ was one of the biggest-selling books of all time.” Soon Trump was talking about “The Apprentice.” Trump called it “the No. 1 show on television,” a reality TV show in which, in 14 seasons, he played himself and humiliated candidates vying for the privilege of a job within his company. In the interview, Trump spent what seemed like an eternity talking about how fabulous and successful he is, but he didn’t name a single book that he hadn’t written.
“Trump doesn’t read,” D’Antonio says in the restaurant. “He hasn’t absorbed anything serious and profound about American society since his college days. And to be honest, I don’t even think he read in college.” When Trump was asked who his foreign policy advisers were, he replied: “Well, I watch the shows.” He was referring to political talk shows on TV.
Trump voters may not read, either, but they should want their president to know something about the problems he proposes to address.
Trump is horribly wrong about big issues. America’s economic problems are not due to Mexican immigrants or Chinese imports, as I wrote in this space last July. I give him credit for punching through the “Islam-is-a-religion-of-peace” idiocy peddled by George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. A plurality of Americans (46% to 40%) support his proposed ban on Muslim immigration. That’s the wrong way to go about it; the right way is to treat the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, as Cruz proposes, and then roll up its supporters. I also give Trump credit for lambasting the awful Iran nuclear deal earlier this week at the AIPAC conference. Cruz did it a lot better.
Unless Hitler or Goebbels were to rise from the grave and run for president, I will not vote for Hillary Clinton; in a Trump-Clinton race, I will vote for Trump without a second’s hesitation. One can’t exclude the possibility that Trump might be a good president; he knows little and makes things up as he goes along, and might conceivably stumble on good solutions. But it is much more likely that he will preside over America’s continuing decline while saturating us with self-consoling rhetoric.
We are in deep trouble. We need a president who can lead us out of our economic and moral slump. I fear that Ted Cruz is our last, best hope before we follow former superpowers like Britain down the slippery slope to national mediocrity.