Editor’s Note: This must-read piece by Angelo Codevilla is reprinted with permission by the Clarmont Institute, where it was originally published. It is the best assessment we’ve seen as to where America now stands as a nation.
Over the past half century, the Reagan years notwithstanding, our ruling class’s changing preferences and habits have transformed public and private life in America. As John Marini shows in his essay, “Donald Trump and the American Crisis,” this has resulted in citizens morphing into either this class’s “stakeholders” or its subjects. And, as Publius Decius Mus argues, “America and the West” now are so firmly “on a trajectory toward something very bad” that it is no longer reasonable to hope that “all human outcomes are still possible,” by which he means restoration of the public and private practices that made the American republic. In fact, the 2016 election is sealing the United States’s transition from that republic to some kind of empire.
Electing either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump cannot change that trajectory. Because each candidate represents constituencies hostile to republicanism, each in its own way, these individuals are not what this election is about. This election is about whether the Democratic Party, the ruling class’s enforcer, will impose its tastes more strongly and arbitrarily than ever, or whether constituencies opposed to that rule will get some ill-defined chance to strike back. Regardless of the election’s outcome, the republic established by America’s Founders is probably gone. But since the Democratic Party’s constituencies differ radically from their opponents’, and since the character of imperial governance depends inherently on the emperor, the election’s result will make a big difference in our lives.
Many Enemies, Few Friends
The overriding question of 2016 has been how eager the American people are to reject the bipartisan class that has ruled this country contrary to its majority’s convictions. Turned out, eager enough to throw out the baby with the dirty bathwater. The ruling class’s united front in response to the 2008 financial crisis had ignited the Tea Party’s call for adherence to the Constitution, and led to elections that gave control of both houses of Congress to the Republican Party. But as Republicans became full partners in the ruling class’s headlong rush in what most considered disastrous directions, Americans lost faith in the Constitution’s power to restrain the wrecking of their way of life.
From the primary season’s outset, the Democratic Party’s candidates promised even more radical “transformations.” When, rarely, they have been asked what gives them the right to do such things they have acted as if the only answer were Nancy Pelosi’s reply to whether the Constitution allows the government to force us into Obamacare: “Are you kidding? Are you kidding?”
On the Republican side, 17 hopefuls promised much, without dealing with the primordial fact that, in today’s America, those in power basically do what they please. Executive orders, phone calls, and the right judge mean a lot more than laws. They even trump state referenda. Over the past half-century, presidents have ruled not by enforcing laws but increasingly through agencies that write their own rules, interpret them, and punish unaccountably—the administrative state. As for the Supreme Court, the American people have seen it invent rights where there were none—e.g., abortion—while trammeling ones that had been the republic’s spine, such as the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech. The Court taught Americans that the word “public” can mean “private” (Kelo v. City of New London), that “penalty” can mean “tax” (King v. Burwell), and that holding an opinion contrary to its own can only be due to an “irrational animus” (Obergefell v. Hodges).
What goes by the name “constitutional law” has been eclipsing the U.S. Constitution for a long time. But when the 1964 Civil Rights Act substituted a wholly open-ended mandate to oppose “discrimination” for any and all fundamental rights, it became the little law that ate the Constitution. Now, because the Act pretended that the commerce clause trumps the freedom of persons to associate or not with whomever they wish, and is being taken to mean that it trumps the free exercise of religion as well, bakers and photographers are forced to take part in homosexual weddings. A commission in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts reported that even a church may be forced to operate its bathrooms according to gender self-identification because it “could be seen as a place of public accommodation if it holds a secular event, such as a spaghetti supper, that is open to the general public.” California came very close to mandating that Catholic schools admit homosexual and transgender students or close down. The Justice Department is studying how to prosecute on-line transactions such as vacation home rental site Airbnb, Inc., that fall afoul of its evolving anti-discrimination standards.
This arbitrary power, whose rabid guard-dog growls and barks: “Racist! Sexist! Homophobic!” has transformed our lives by removing restraints on government. The American Bar Association’s new professional guidelines expose lawyers to penalties for insufficient political correctness. Performing abortions or at least training to perform them may be imposed as a requirement for licensing doctors, nurses, and hospitals that offer services to the general public.
Addressing what it would take to reestablish the primacy of fundamental rights would have required Republican candidates to reset the Civil Rights movement on sound constitutional roots. Surprised they didn’t do it?
No one running for the GOP nomination discussed the greatest violation of popular government’s norms—never mind the Constitution—to have occurred in two hundred years, namely, the practice, agreed upon by mainstream Republicans and Democrats, of rolling all of the government’s expenditures into a single bill. This eliminates elected officials’ responsibility for any of the government’s actions, and reduces them either to approving all that the government does without reservation, or the allegedly revolutionary, disloyal act of “shutting down the government.”
Rather than talk about how to restrain or shrink government, Republican candidates talked about how to do more with government. The Wall Street Journal called that “having a positive agenda.” Hence, Republicans by and large joined the Democrats in relegating the U.S. Constitution to history’s dustbin.
Because Republicans largely agree with Democrats that they need not take seriously the founders’ Constitution, today’s American regime is now what Max Weber had called the Tsarist regime on the eve of the Revolution: “fake constitutionalism.” Because such fakery is self-discrediting and removes anyone’s obligation to restrain his passions, it is a harbinger of revolution and of imperial power.
The ruling class having chosen raw power over law and persuasion, the American people reasonably concluded that raw power is the only way to counter it, and looked for candidates who would do that. Hence, even constitutional scholar Ted Cruz stopped talking about the constitutional implications of President Obama’s actions after polls told him that the public was more interested in what he would do to reverse them, niceties notwithstanding. Had Cruz become the main alternative to the Democratic Party’s dominion, the American people might have been presented with the option of reverting to the rule of law. But that did not happen. Both of the choices before us presuppose force, not law.
A Change of Regimes
All ruling classes are what Shakespeare called the “makers of manners.” Plato, in The Republic, and Aristotle, in his Politics, teach that polities reflect the persons who rise to prominence within them, whose habits the people imitate, and who set the tone of life in them. Thus a polity can change as thoroughly as a chorus changes from comedy to tragedy depending on the lyrics and music. Obviously, the standards and tone of life that came from Abraham Lincoln’s Oval Office is quite opposite from what came from the same place when Bill Clinton used it. Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm was arguably the world’s most polite society. Under Hitler, it became the most murderous.
In today’s America, a network of executive, judicial, bureaucratic, and social kinship channels bypasses the sovereignty of citizens. Our imperial regime, already in force, works on a simple principle: the president and the cronies who populate these channels may do whatever they like so long as the bureaucracy obeys and one third plus one of the Senate protects him from impeachment. If you are on the right side of that network, you can make up the rules as you go along, ignore or violate any number of laws, obfuscate or commit perjury about what you are doing (in the unlikely case they put you under oath), and be certain of your peers’ support. These cronies’ shared social and intellectual identity stems from the uniform education they have received in the universities. Because disdain for ordinary Americans is this ruling class’s chief feature, its members can be equally certain that all will join in celebrating each, and in demonizing their respective opponents.
And, because the ruling class blurs the distinction between public and private business, connection to that class has become the principal way of getting rich in America. Not so long ago, the way to make it here was to start a business that satisfied customers’ needs better than before. Nowadays, more businesses die each year than are started. In this century, all net additions in employment have come from the country’s 1,500 largest corporations. Rent-seeking through influence on regulations is the path to wealth. In the professions, competitive exams were the key to entry and advancement not so long ago. Now, you have to make yourself acceptable to your superiors. More important, judicial decisions and administrative practice have divided Americans into “protected classes”—possessed of special privileges and immunities—and everybody else. Equality before the law and equality of opportunity are memories. Co-option is the path to power. Ever wonder why the quality of our leaders has been declining with each successive generation?
Moreover, since the Kennedy reform of 1965, and with greater speed since 2009, the ruling class’s immigration policy has changed the regime by introducing some 60 million people—roughly a fifth of our population—from countries and traditions different from, if not hostile, to ours. Whereas earlier immigrants earned their way to prosperity, a disproportionate percentage of post-1965 arrivals have been encouraged to become dependents of the state. Equally important, the ruling class chose to reverse America’s historic practice of assimilating immigrants, emphasizing instead what divides them from other Americans. Whereas Lincoln spoke of binding immigrants by “the electric cord” of the founders’ principles, our ruling class treats these principles as hypocrisy. All this without votes or law; just power.
Foul is Fair and Fair is Foul
In short, precisely as the classics defined regime change, people and practices that had been at society’s margins have been brought to its center, while people and ideas that had been central have been marginalized.
Fifty years ago, prayer in the schools was near universal, but no one was punished for not praying. Nowadays, countless people are arrested or fired for praying on school property. West Point’s commanding general reprimanded the football coach for his team’s thanksgiving prayer. Fifty years ago, bringing sexually explicit stuff into schools was treated as a crime, as was “procuring abortion.” Nowadays, schools contract with Planned Parenthood to teach sex, and will not tell parents when they take girls to PP facilities for abortions. Back then, many schools worked with the National Rifle Association to teach gun handling and marksmanship. Now students are arrested and expelled merely for pointing their finger and saying “bang.” In those benighted times, boys who ventured into the girls’ bathroom were expelled as perverts. Now, girls are suspended for objecting to boys coming into the girls’ room under pretense of transgenderism. The mainstreaming of pornography, the invention of abortion as the most inalienable of human rights and, most recently, the designation of opposition to homosexual marriage as a culpable psychosis—none of which is dictated by law enacted by elected officials—is enforced as if it had been. No surprise that America has experienced a drastic drop in the formation of families, with the rise of rates of out-of-wedlock births among whites equal to the rates among blacks that was recognized as disastrous a half-century ago, the near-disappearance of two-parent families among blacks, and the social dislocations attendant to all that.
Ever since the middle of the 20th century our ruling class, pursuing hazy concepts of world order without declarations of war, has sacrificed American lives first in Korea, then in Vietnam, and now throughout the Muslim world. By denigrating Americans who call for peace, or for wars unto victory over America’s enemies; by excusing or glorifying those who take our enemies’ side or who disrespect the American flag; our rulers have drawn down the American regime’s credit and eroded the people’s patriotism.
As the ruling class destroyed its own authority, it wrecked the republic’s as well. This is no longer the “land where our fathers died,” nor even the country that won World War II. It would be surprising if any society, its identity altered and its most fundamental institutions diminished, had continued to function as before. Ours sure does not, and it is difficult to imagine how it can do so ever again. We can be sure only that the revolution underway among us, like all others, will run its unpredictable course.
All we know is the choice that faces us at this stage: either America continues in the same direction, but faster and without restraint, or there’s the hazy possibility of something else.
The consequences of empowering today’s Democratic Party are crystal clear. The Democratic Party—regardless of its standard bearer—would use its victory to drive the transformations that it has already wrought on America to quantitative and qualitative levels that not even its members can imagine. We can be sure of that because what it has done and is doing is rooted in a logic that has animated the ruling class for a century, and because that logic has shaped the minds and hearts of millions of this class’s members, supporters, and wannabes.
That logic’s essence, expressed variously by Herbert Croly and Woodrow Wilson, FDR’s brains trust, intellectuals of both the old and the new Left, choked back and blurted out by progressive politicians, is this: America’s constitutional republic had given the American people too much latitude to be who they are, that is: religiously and socially reactionary, ignorant, even pathological, barriers to Progress. Thankfully, an enlightened minority exists with the expertise and the duty to disperse the religious obscurantism, the hypocritical talk of piety, freedom, and equality, which excuses Americans’ racism, sexism, greed, and rape of the environment. As we progressives take up our proper responsibilities, Americans will no longer live politically according to their prejudices; they will be ruled administratively according to scientific knowledge.
Progressivism’s programs have changed over time. But its disdain for how other Americans live and think has remained fundamental. More than any commitment to principles, programs, or way of life, this is its paramount feature. The media reacted to Hillary Clinton’s remark that “half of Trump’s supporters could be put into a ‘basket of deplorables’” as if these sentiments were novel and peculiar to her. In fact, these are unremarkable restatements of our ruling class’s perennial creed.
The pseudo-intellectual argument for why these “deplorables” have no right to their opinions is that giving equal consideration to people and positions that stand in the way of Progress is “false equivalence,” as President Obama has put it. But the same idea has been expressed most recently and fully by New York Times CEO Mark Thompson, as well as Times columnists Jim Rutenberg, Timothy Egan, and William Davies. In short, devotion to truth means not reporting on Donald Trump and people like him as if they or anything they say might be of value.
If trying to persuade irredeemable socio-political inferiors is no more appropriate than arguing with animals, why not just write them off by sticking dismissive names on them? Doing so is less challenging, and makes you feel superior. Why wrestle with the statistical questions implicit in Darwin when you can just dismiss Christians as Bible-thumpers? Why bother arguing for Progressivism’s superiority when you can construct “scientific” studies like Theodor Adorno’s, proving that your opponents suffer from degrees of “fascism” and other pathologies? This is a well-trod path. Why, to take an older example, should General Omar Bradley have bothered trying to refute Douglas MacArthur’s statement that in war there is no substitute for victory when calling MacArthur and his supporters “primitives” did the trick? Why wrestle with our climate’s complexities when you can make up your own “models,” being sure that your class will treat them as truth?
What priorities will the ruling class’s notion of scientific truth dictate to the next Democratic administration? Because rejecting that true and false, right and wrong are objectively ascertainable is part of this class’s DNA, no corpus of fact or canon of reason restrains it or defines its end-point. Its definition of “science” is neither more nor less than what “scientists say” at any given time. In practice, that means “Science R-Us,” now and always, exclusively. Thus has come to pass what President Dwight Eisenhower warned against in his 1960 Farewell address: “A steadily increasing share [of science] is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.… [T]he free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution…a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.” Hence, said Ike, “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present—and is gravely to be regarded.” The result has been that academics rise through government grants while the government exercises power by claiming to act on science’s behalf. If you don’t bow to the authority of the power that says what is and is not so, you are an obscurantist or worse.
Under our ruling class, “truth” has morphed from the reflection of objective reality to whatever has “normative pull”—i.e., to what furthers the ruling class’s agenda, whatever that might be at any given time. That is the meaning of the term “political correctness,” as opposed to factual correctness.
It’s the Contempt, Stupid!
Who, a generation ago, could have guessed that careers and social standing could be ruined by stating the fact that the paramount influence on the earth’s climate is the sun, that its output of energy varies and with it the climate? Who, a decade ago, could have predicted that stating that marriage is the union of a man and a woman would be treated as a culpable sociopathy, or just yesterday that refusing to let certifiably biological men into women’s bathrooms would disqualify you from mainstream society? Or that saying that the lives of white people “matter” as much as those of blacks is evidence of racism? These strictures came about quite simply because some sectors of the ruling class felt like inflicting them on the rest of America. Insulting presumed inferiors proved to be even more important to the ruling class than the inflictions’ substance.
How far will our rulers go? Because their network is mutually supporting, they will go as far as they want. Already, there is pressure from ruling class constituencies, as well as academic arguments, for morphing the concept of “hate crime” into the criminalization of “hate speech”—which means whatever these loving folks hate. Of course this is contrary to the First Amendment, and a wholesale negation of freedom. But it is no more so than the negation of freedom of association that is already eclipsing religious freedom in the name anti-discrimination. It is difficult to imagine a Democratic president, Congress, and Supreme Court standing in the way.
Above all, these inflictions, as well as the ruling class’s acceptance of its own members’ misbehavior, came about because millions of its supporters were happy, or happy enough, to support them in the interest of maintaining their own status in a ruling coalition while discomfiting their socio-political opponents. Consider, for example, how republic-killing an event was the ruling class’s support of President Bill Clinton in the wake of his nationally televised perjury. Subsequently, as constituencies of supporters have effectively condoned officials’ abusive, self-serving, and even outright illegal behavior, they have encouraged more and more of it while inuring themselves to it. That is how republics turn into empires from the roots up.
But it is also true, as Mao Tse-Tung used to say, “a fish begins to rot at the head.” If you want to understand why any and all future Democratic Party administrations can only be empires dedicated to injuring and insulting their subjects, look first at their intellectual leaders’ rejection of the American republic’s most fundamental principles.
The Declaration of Independence says that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” among which are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These rights—codified in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights—are not civil rights that governments may define. The free exercise of religion, freedom of speech and assembly, keeping and bearing arms, freedom from warrantless searches, protection against double jeopardy and self-incrimination, trial by jury of one’s peers, etc., are natural rights that pertain to human beings as such. Securing them for Americans is what the United States is all about. But today’s U.S. Civil Rights Commission advocates truncating the foremost of these rights because, as it stated in a recent report, “Religious exemptions to the protections of civil rights based upon classifications such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity, when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon those civil rights.” The report explains why the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights should not be permissible: “The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy, or any form of intolerance.”
Hillary Clinton’s attack on Trump supporters merely matched the ruling class’s current common sense. Why should government workers and all who wield the administrative state’s unaccountable powers not follow their leaders’ judgment, backed by the prestige press, about who are to be treated as citizens and who is to be handled as deplorable refuse? Hillary Clinton underlined once again how the ruling class regards us, and about what it has in store for us.
Electing Donald Trump would result in an administration far less predictable than any Democratic one. In fact, what Trump would or would not do, could or could not do, pales into insignificance next to the certainty of what any Democrat would do. That is what might elect Trump.
The character of an eventual Trump Administration is unpredictable because speculating about Trump’s mind is futile. It is equally futile to guess how he might react to the mixture of flattery and threats sure to be leveled against him. The entire ruling class—Democrats and Republicans, the bulk of the bureaucracy, the judiciary, and the press—would do everything possible to thwart him; and the constituencies that chose him as their candidate, and that might elect him, are surely not united and are by no means clear about the demands they would press. Moreover, it is anyone’s guess whom he would appoint and how he would balance his constituencies’ pressures against those of the ruling class.
Never before has such a large percentage of Americans expressed alienation from their leaders, resentment, even fear. Some two-thirds of Americans believe that elected and appointed officials—plus the courts, the justice system, business leaders, educators—are leading the country in the wrong direction: that they are corrupt, do more harm than good, make us poorer, get us into wars and lose them. Because this majority sees no one in the political mainstream who shares their concerns, because it lacks confidence that the system can be fixed, it is eager to empower whoever might flush the system and its denizens with something like an ungentle enema.
Yet the persons who express such revolutionary sentiments are not a majority ready to support a coherent imperial program to reverse the course of America’s past half-century. Temperamentally conservative, these constituencies had been most attached to the Constitution and been counted as the bedrock of stability. They are not yet wholly convinced that there is little left to conserve. What they want, beyond an end to the ruling class’s outrages, has never been clear. This is not surprising, given that the candidates who appeal to their concerns do so with mere sound bites. Hence they chose as the presidential candidate of the nominal opposition party the man who combined the most provocative anti-establishment sounds with reassurance that it won’t take much to bring back good old America: Donald Trump. But bringing back good old America would take an awful lot. What could he do to satisfy them?
Trump’s propensity for treating pronouncements on policy as flags to be run up and down the flagpole as he measures the volume of the applause does not deprive them of all significance—especially the ones that confirm his anti-establishment bona fides. These few policy items happen to be the ones by which he gained his anti-establishment reputation in the first place: 1) opposition to illegal immigration, especially the importation of Muslims whom Americans reasonably perceive as hostile to us; 2) law and order: stop excusing rioters and coddling criminals; 3) build a wall, throw out the illegals, let in only people who are vetted and certified as supporters of our way of life (that’s the way it was when I got my immigrant visa in 1955), and keep out anybody we can’t be sure isn’t a terrorist. Trump’s tentative, partial retreat from a bit of the latter nearly caused his political standing to implode, prompting the observation that doing something similar regarding abortion would end his political career. That is noteworthy because, although Trump’s support of the pro-life cause is lukewarm at best, it is the defining commitment for much of his constituency. The point here is that, regardless of his own sentiments, Trump cannot wholly discount his constituencies’ demands for a forceful turn away from the country’s current direction.
Trump’s slogan—“make America great again”—is the broadest, most unspecific, common denominator of non-ruling-class Americans’ diverse dissatisfaction with what has happened to the country. He talks about reasserting America’s identity, at least by controlling the borders; governing in America’s own interest rather than in pursuit of objectives of which the American people have not approved; stopping the export of jobs and removing barriers to business; and banishing political correctness’s insults and injuries. But all that together does not amount to making America great again. Nor does Trump begin to explain what it was that had made this country great to millions who have known only an America much diminished.
In fact, the United States of America was great because of a whole bunch of things that now are gone. Yes, the ruling class led the way in personal corruption, cheating on tests, lowering of professional standards, abandoning churches and synagogues for the Playboy Philosophy and lifestyle, disregarding law, basing economic life on gaming the administrative state, basing politics on conflicting identities, and much more. But much of the rest of the country followed. What would it take to make America great again—or indeed to make any of the changes that Trump’s voters demand? Replacing the current ruling class would be only the beginning.
Because it is difficult to imagine a Trump presidency even thinking about something so monumental as replacing an entire ruling elite, much less leading his constituency to accomplishing it, electing Trump is unlikely to result in a forceful turn away from the country’s current direction. Continuing pretty much on the current trajectory under the same class will further fuel revolutionary sentiments in the land all by itself. Inevitable disappointment with Trump is sure to add to them.
We have stepped over the threshold of a revolution. It is difficult to imagine how we might step back, and futile to speculate where it will end. Our ruling class’s malfeasance, combined with insult, brought it about. Donald Trump did not cause it and is by no means its ultimate manifestation. Regardless of who wins in 2016, this revolution’s sentiments will grow in volume and intensity, and are sure to empower politicians likely to make Americans nostalgic for Donald Trump’s moderation.