2016 is a pivotal year in which accustomed referents of a stable West are now disappearing. We seem to be living in a chaotic age, akin to the mid-1930s, of cynicism and skepticism. Government, religion, and popular culture are corrupt and irrelevant—and the world order of the last 70 years has all but collapsed.
Neither the president nor his would-be successors talk much about the fact that we are now nearing $20 trillion in debt—in an ossified economy of near-zero interest rates, little if any GDP growth, and record numbers of able-bodied but non-working adults. (The most frequent complaint I hear in my hometown is that the government lags behind in their cost-of-living raises in Social Security disability payments.)
No one can figure out how and why America’s youth have borrowed a collective $1 trillion for college tuition, and yet received so little education and skills in the bargain. Today’s campuses have become as foreign to American traditions of tolerance and free expression as what followed the Weimar Republic. To appreciate cry-bully censorship, visit a campus “free-speech” area. To witness segregation, walk into a college “safe space.” To hear unapologetic anti-Semitism, attend a university lecture. To learn of the absence of due process, read of a campus hearing on alleged sexual assault. To see a brown shirt in action, watch faculty call for muscle at a campus demonstration. To relearn the mentality of a Chamberlain or Daladier, listen to the contextualizations of a college president. And to talk to an uneducated person, approach a recent college graduate.
If all that is confusing, factor in the Trimalchio banquet of campus rock-climbing walls, students glued to their iPhone 6s, $200 sneakers, latte bars, late-model foreign cars in the parking lot, and yoga classes. Affluence, arrogance, and ignorance are quite a trifecta.
Bernie Sanders—a proud Eugene Debs-like socialist whose campaign in normal times would have been the stuff of caricature—is now running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination. He rails like an Old Testament prophet at Wall Street, often oblivious that Wall Street’s totem stands a mere three feet away on the debating stage.
Obama may have wrecked his party by losing the Congress and most of the state legislatures, but he certainly has moved it to the hard community-organizing left. Sanders has little appreciation that he is an artifact of free-market capitalism, which alone has created enough bounty for such a demagogue to call for massive redistribution—in a way impossible for socialists any longer in exhausted Cuba, Greece, Venezuela, or any other command-economy paradise. Where does Sanders think his statism has worked—China, North Korea, Bolivia, Cuba, or the ossified European Union?
Bill Clinton on the stump has reminded us that there need not be any dignity to the post-presidency. He offers a blueprint to becoming fabulously wealthy by monetizing a mere eight years in office with lifetime quid pro quos and Putin-like leverage. He has managed to make the sanctimonious scold Jimmy Carter seem reverential in comparison. The mystery of Hillary Clinton is not that she should be indicted on charges that are routinely filed against lesser miscreant bureaucrats, but that her entire corrupt career has always somehow been exempt, from cattle speculation to withholding subpoenaed evidence.
Mrs. Clinton is now like a tottering third-world caudillo—she can’t really continue on in politics and she can’t quit trying if she wants to stay out of jail. Her possible indictment depends entirely on her political viability and utility. She and the once disbarred Bill Clinton might appear like tired, tragic dinosaurs, bewildered that politics have left them behind in their late sixties—were it not for these aging egoists’ routine petulance and sense of entitlement.
Donald Trump is probably not a serious student of the European 1930s, but in brilliant fashion he has sized up the public’s worries over a Potemkin economy, exhaustion with wars, and namby-pamby leadership. His own remedy is 1930s to the core: nationalism, crude bombast, mytho-history, and sloganeering without much detail. Trump’s trajectory is predicated on the premise that a jaded public cares more about emotion than logic, and how a leader speaks rather than what he says.
In European 1930s street-brawling fashion, no one knows quite whether Trump is a 1990s Clinton Democrat, a 1980s Reagan Republican, or a Perotist misfit. He has thrown a ball and chain through the pretentious glass of American campaigning. Trump excites voters because he can profane, smear, interrupt, and fabricate—on the premise that as a performance artist he reifies what they think but don’t dare say about a corrupt political class and its warped, politically correct values. Trump reminds Americans what deterrence is: the supposedly courageous media, the so-called truth-to-power leftists, and the sober and judicious careerist politicians are all terrified how he might reply or react to their criticism. None of them want to spend 2-3 days trading smears with Donald Trump.
The president has a strange tic: the more he lectures about either the peaceful tendencies or impotence of an Iran or ISIS, or the more he explains how an aggressive Russia or China is stupidly not acting in their own interests, the more we know that the world is becoming ever more dangerous to the United States. He peddles mythologies about Cuba’s Castro, Iran’s aspirations, non-Islamic jihadism, and hands-up, don’t-shoot racializing, on the premise that even as all else has failed him, he wins exemption from reasoned cross-examination due to his “transformative” and iconic status.
Israel is now a neutral at best—a sort of forgotten Byzantine outpost in a dangerous neighborhood, forsaken by the medieval West. China brazenly has established the principle that a superpower can create territory ex nihilo—along with territorial jurisdiction anywhere it wishes. The only brake on Putin’s Russia is his own energy level and whether he believes that routinely taking advantage of Obama’s United States is getting boring. ISIS did not wait for its full-fledged caliphate to start slaughtering its ideological and religious enemies, given that it assumes a corrupt world has no worries about its genocide and religious cleansing. It is baffled only because after raping, beheading, dismembering, strangling, smashing, drowning, and incinerating, it still cannot win the attention of the West—and is running out of methods to torture and slay the innocent.
Not since Pius XII has a pope proved as mysterious and exasperating as Francis. He seems not to have transcended the parochial time and space of Peronist Argentina. The well-meaning and kindly pope acts as if he is unworried about the historical wages of leftwing authoritarianism and government-mandated redistribution. Why would a pontiff, protected by medieval walls and Vatican territorial security, blast U.S. immigration policy toward Mexican illegal immigrants?
Since Obama’s reelection, the southern border has been wide open, in naked efforts to recalibrate American electoral demography. The U.S. has taken in more immigrants, legal and illegal, than has any other country—the only impediment for entry is being educated, skilled, with resources, and insisting on legality. The U.S. last year allowed nearly $80 billion to be sent in annual remittances to Mexico and Latin America, mostly from those here illegally. Certainly, Mexico, in a most un-Christian fashion, has built walls on its own southern border to prevent unlawful entry, published comic-book manuals to instruct its emigrants how to violate U.S. immigration law, and written into its own constitution repulsive racial prerequisites for emigrating to Mexico—all to the apparent ignorance of the otherwise intrusively editorializing pope. Mexico’s own obsession with exporting its indigenous people to the U.S. is predicated on historic Mexican racism, always emanating from grandees in Mexico City.
Popular culture has become a 1930s collective Berlin cabaret. Apple—whose iPhones cause more fatal distractions than driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs—refuses to help the FBI to open one phone of a dead Islamic terrorist. It protects the last calls of a mass murderer as if the logs were records of Apple’s $180 billion stashed in offshore investment schemes.
To walk on an upscale bike path today is to see more pets than toddlers in baby carriages (I counted yesterday). Swerving semis on the freeway used to mean high blood alcohol levels, now they reflect text messaging. Is there some rule that demands that only movie stars, investment bankers, and tech moguls, who live in houses of more than 5,000 square feet or fly on private jets, have earned the right to lecture hoi polloi on their bad habits that lead to global warming? Is barbecuing a steak worse than burning up 5 gallons of aviation fuel a minute?
Segregation, not integration and assimilation, is the new trajectory of racial relations. “White privilege” is said to be such an insidious aid to career success that careerist whites like Elizabeth Warren, Ward Churchill, Shaun King, and Rachel Dolezal will do almost anything to insist that they are really non-white. The president of the United States invited a rapper for a White House visit. The rapper's latest album cover shows a dead white judge lying at the feet of celebratory African-American men, with fists of money and champagne held in triumph—in front of the White House. Reality imitates art. Could the president give another Cairo speech about such symbolism?
The half-time Super Bowl spectacle was Petronian to the core. Beyoncé, in apparent reaction to heightened racial tensions over the absence of a black Oscar nominee, performed an incoherent tribute to the Black Panthers, with an non-integrated retinue, damning the police and canonizing a fallen felon with a long history of violent criminal offenses. In the age where “cultural appropriation” is damned, a multimillionaire, decked out in dyed blond hair and bullet-stuffed bandoleers, is messaging to an apparently new segregated racial universe—perhaps in tune with the periodic racialist outbursts of the multimillionaire Kanye West. If in the past, jazz, soul and Motown offered a positive corrective to crude, heavy metal white American music, today rappers vie to trump the raunchiness of Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, and Madonna. Certainly to watch the Super Bowl, Oscar, or Grammy festivities is to receive a pop sermon from mansion-residing multimillionaires about just how unfair are the race, class, and gender biases of the world in which they somehow made fortunes. In Weimar America, that Will Smith has a 25,000 square-foot mansion, but not a 2016 Oscar nomination, is proof of endemic racism and deprivation.
I wish all this could end well. But history’s corrective to 1930s chaos was a different—and deadlier—sort of chaos. And so ours may well be too.