The Loss of American Virtue

A conservative but cogent Australian commentator observes the crisis of American politics. I reproduce Paul Kelly’s article in order to share it with friends and comrades who are unable to leap News Ltd’s pay wall.

As Kelly writes, “Only a fool could miss the global significance of this election — it is a massive advertisement for American weakness, not weakness in a quantified way but weakness at the nation’s heart, rottenness at its core”.

So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity
Bob Dylan

I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene.
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight,
getting lost in that hopeless little screen.                                       Leonard Cohen, ‘Democracy’

Donald Trump exposes loss of American virtue

Paul Kelly, The Weekend Australian, 15th October 2106

Despite all flawed past prophecies it is surely impossible to view the ghastly freak show of the US presidential election without apprehension that we are witnessing the decline of a civilisation and the death of the virtues that made America great.

Donald Trump should never have become the Republican nominee for president. His nomination and his campaign is the greatest failure of the Republicans and of American conservatism since World War II. The crisis has been decades in the making.

It is the culmination of a profound historical trend: the abandonment by the US ruling class, in particular the political class, of its responsibility to exemplify and uphold standards of character, integrity, competence and civility for the nation. The American ruling class seems hollow at its core and its public policy atrocities of the past 20 years now loom as a staircase to catastrophe.

This failure feeds on and reflects a parallel phenomenon — the loss among the American people of those qualities, habits and behaviour that made America different and exceptional for much of its history, seen, above all, in an expanding middle class whose values once dominated the nation.

The crisis of the American community is economic and cultural. The signs of sickness abound in the growth of a rich, self-interested elite, richer, more aloof and more isolated than ever from the people; an expanding underclass entrenched in intergenerational deprivation; the weakening of middle-class prosperity and optimism; the loss of US capability and ingenuity to tackle its problems from jobs to drugs to obesity to poor schools; the debasement and coarsening of a culture drunk on fatuous celebrity and a reality TV circus; and the rise of an indulgent, divisive, victimhood brand of identity politics.

America is a country that has been fooling itself. For years its politicians, Left and Right, have been extolling the superiority of the American model while that model was unravelling in front of them.

The warning issued by US writer Charles Murray in his penetrating 2012 book, Coming Apart, is now loaded with prescience. Murray’s thesis was that America over the past 50 years had grown into two different societies: a new upper class and a new lower class in a betrayal of the founding fathers’ ideals.

For Murray, “a significant and growing portion of the American population is losing the virtues required to be functioning members of a free society” while the thriving elites were “scratching one another’s backs”, exploiting and entrenching their privileges and “rigging the game but within the law” — the exact accusation made by a hypocritical Trump.

Murray said America would stay rich but on current trends it was “leaving its heritage behind”. This was the civic religion identified from the American Revolution onwards in which liberty and public virtue sustained each other in a way that made America unique. “We may continue to have a president and a congress and a Supreme Court,” Murray said four years ago. “But everything that makes America exceptional will have disappeared.”

The polarisation of US politics reflects an infantilisation of the culture. In Trump’s case it is the seduction of authoritarianism, arising from the failure of con­ventional politics and the lure of a strong man on horseback equip­ped with state power pledging to solve all your problems. “I alone can fix it,” he boasts in the chant of the demagogue down the ages.

There is a direct correlation between the numbers prepared to vote for him and the loss of faith in the American project. Trump symbolises the betrayal of the founding American ideal. The most startling story is the sheer ease with which Trump hijacked, trashed and corrupted American conservatism.

Deeply aware of the historical crisis that Trump symbolises for America, columnist George F. Will wrote: “Conservatism’s recovery from his piratical capture of the conservative party will require facing unflattering factors about a country that currently is indifferent to its founding.” Echoing Murray’s earlier warning, Will called for a recognition that “whatever remains of American exceptionalism does not immunise this nation from decay to which all regimes are susceptible”.

The Republicans are a tragic global joke. They have betrayed their country, their party and their democracy. How many years before anyone takes them seriously again? Having railed against Barack Obama’s weakness on issue after issue they folded before Trump in a display of astonishing and unprincipled cowardice. As Robert Kagan wrote, the Republicans are working to hand the country “over to someone who they know in their hearts would be a disaster for the nation’s security”.

Their acquiescence before the charlatan deserves no forgiveness. Yet many Republicans and their backers cannot grasp what has happened. They pretend Trump is doing a service by giving voice to the alienated. Meanwhile, their support for Trump destroys their legitimacy as critics of a deeply flawed Hillary Clinton.

Clinton is a potent symbol of the convulsions behind the American malaise. She runs as the ultimate insider in a dysfunctional system relying on money power, celebrity, patronage and special deals. Yet she represents, in almost every dimension, the bankruptcy of progressive politics championing big government, big spending, trade protection, financing expanding benefits for the many by higher taxes on the few and pushing a relentless agenda of identity politics.

Trump and Clinton testify to the failure of both the conservative and progressive traditions to devise tenable answers to America’s plight.

Never has intelligent government been more important and rarely has short-term, phony, research-driven, ideological fixes been more prevalent.

Only a fool could miss the global significance of this election — it is a massive advertisement for American weakness, not weakness in a quantified way but weakness at the nation’s heart, rottenness at its core. Since its formation America, despite its grievous faults, has endured as a “city upon a hill” — invoking the Puritan vernacular — an example to the world as extolled by both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. This election, by contrast, is a display of American ugliness, vulgarity and selfishness.

What nation will want to duplicate the American rule book after this event? What nation would want to follow American democracy? What nation would believe in American judgment? Russia and China will take heart, not just as geo-strategic rivals but as enemies of the American democratic model for nations.

Remember when the US president used to be called “the leader of the free world.” Think about it — this impostor, Trump, as “leader of the free world”?

Russia and China, of course, would love to see him in the chair once occupied by Kennedy and Reagan, let alone Washington and Lincoln. By casting such a vote the American people would perpetrate far more damage on their nation than anything recently rendered by Russia or China. What sort of “free world” after four years with Trump as president?

The Republicans are supposed to be the party of family values, Christian tradition, free trade, national security guardianship and economic competence. What a laugh. They nominated a candidate who mocked every principle American conservatism purports to represent.

Trump boasts about assaulting and groping women, grabbing them by the genitals, was happy to call his daughter is a “piece of ass”, wants to put his opponent in jail in the style of an African banana republic, likes the notion of cosying up and doing deals with thugs like Vladimir Putin, bags loyal and long-dedicated US allies, threatens a trade war with China, wants to kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, attacks every free trade deal he sights, pledges huge unfunded tax cuts, wants to dictate to US corporates where and how they operate and parades as a nostalgic isolationist.

Unfit to be president and a danger in the White House, he represents two other ingredients central to the American malaise — the growing failure of US public policy as an instrument to resolve problems and challenges, and the collapse of trust in American institutions, a process on dramatic display in relation to the legislative and executive branches but also at local level where that American practice of building strong civic society through voluntary clubs and associations is dying in much of the country.

Alexis de Tocqueville discerned in the American project a genius to “repair her faults”, yet such genius seems gone from broken infrastructure to failing education to flawed institutions.

It is tempting, indeed irresistible, to interpret the stepping stones of past 30 years of US history through a far tougher lens. First, the US grossly misread its epic victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Fuelled by hubris, it became convinced that victory was more a vindication of US perfection and the superiority of its governing model than it was of utter, bedrock Soviet collapse. If you believe your model is near perfect then you have set yourself up for a big fall.

Second, the US, intoxicated by the idea of the unipolar moment and cut to its soul by the 9/11 attack, misjudged and overreached in its regime change project in Iraq, unleashing religious, tribal and nationalistic forces beyond its imagination, damaging its global standing, exposing its ineptitude in the revisionism of the 21st century and, above all, dividing and polarising itself internally. The adventurism of George W. Bush surrendered to the “leadership from behind” of Obama.

Third, while America was playing on the global stage its own house was slowly falling apart. From the early 1980s to the present, real wage growth for a majority of workers was near static. The average hourly wage today has the same purchasing power as in 1980. Wage stagnation has been a permanent feature of US life for more than a generation. What did political leaders expect would happen? The voters got angry and felt they were being robbed. They were.

This trend has been compounded by the great jobs transition — the decline of reasonably paid middle-class jobs, often in manufacturing, along with the creation of less well paid and insecure jobs in the services sector. The US is expert at two types of job creation: upper end high paid hi-tech jobs and low-paid services jobs. This reinforces the Murray thesis. Make no mistake; the US has the best universities, the superior innovation, the leading entrepreneurs. Its elites intermarry, enjoy elaborate and expanding self-help networks, obtain an even better education and expanding capital assets. They care about climate change, personal rights and are often prepared to pay higher taxes for the social dividend that may bring.

Writing of the elite, Murray says: “Personally and as families, its members are successful. But they have abdicated their responsibility to set and promulgate standards.” It is the situation Trump exploits — an alienated and angry white vote and a superior, patronising elite now living according to different standards and hence unable to set any example even if they had such consciousness.

For Murray, America is losing the sources of its deepest value and foundation of a satisfied life — the traditional family model is disintegrating; the decline of religion as a personal and community value runs in tandem with disruption and unhappiness; and the demise of community weakens neighbourhoods at the grassroots. “Our nation is coming apart at the seams,” he warned. “Problems in white working-class America may have been worsening under the radar, but problems in black America have attracted coverage for decades.” You cannot miss the prophecy, and the crisis of the white working class and wider nation has become the election issue.

Fourth, the 2008-09 great recession in America accentuated and brought to a mounting climax this income and cultural clash. The crisis originated in the incompetence, arrogance and greed of the financial sector — but the cost has been transmitted to bank clients, homeowners and borrowers. It was a classic elite failure and the public’s response is manifest: it has withdrawn its trust from the financial sector.

Again, it is the story of two Americas. The economic legacy of a low-growth economy for the past eight years constitutes the burning fuse leading to the 2016 election explosion.

Much damage has been done by the Trump-Clinton contest. Sadly, repair is unlikely to figure prominently post-election. Tocqueville’s admiration for an America able to repair its faults will face an immense test. The truth is that Trump, with more than 40 per cent of Americans saying they will vote for him, has already proved the sickness of US politics and society.

Even more alarming is that Clinton’s lead fluctuates according to Trump’s blunders, suggesting the fragility of a leader who cannot engage with much of the public. Yet Trump is unlikely to prevail. His ability to alienate is limitless; his lack of political professionalism is stunning; and the anti-Trump revelations are sure to continue. The risk is that the progressive media will engage in overkill, enabling Trump to turn the tables and highlight a corrupt status quo.

Trump’s real skill is pulling Clinton into the mud with him. That’s the easiest and most effective method for any recovery. In the process the debasement of US politics moves from one unprecedented low to another. All the time, the centre cannot hold. It is stretched too thin.

Now if this makes you depressed, remember that writers thrive on marking down America and America thrives on proving them wrong.

Featured Image: ‘Night Watch’, 2004 Russian urban fantasy supernatural thriller written and directed by Timur Bekmambetov.

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