Walter Russell Mead on the American Political Crisis
In early 2016 historian Walter Russell Mead wrote a prescient analysis of the American political crisis that was to burst fully into the open only some months later, with Donald Trump’s victory in the November presidential election. I vaguely recalled Mead’s brilliant description of the enormous elite interests lined up behind Mrs. Clinton, and the comprehensive failure of the American Right to challenge the prevailing ‘liberal consensus’, but could not find the piece in my archives.
Anyway, after a bit of rooting around, here it is: ‘The Meaning of Mister Trump’, published in May 2016 at the ‘American Interest’ magazine, and also at the Hudson Institute.
Here is the bit that had stuck in my memory, Russell Mead on the extraordinary ‘agglomeration of power’ supporting Mrs. Clinton:
The interest groups and power centers that surround Secretary Clinton like a praetorian guard—Wall Street, the upper middle class feminists, the African American establishment, the Davoisie, the institutional power of the great foundations and educational bureaucracies, Silicon Valley, Hollywood—have defeated their intellectual and political rivals in their spheres of interest and influence. Supporting her is a massive agglomeration of power, intellect, wealth and talent. Her candidacy is the logical climax of the Baby Boom’s march through the institutions of American life. Even the neoconservatives are enlisting in her campaign.
For all the elegant pirouetting at conservative outlets like ‘National Review’, ‘The Weekly Standard’, the Heritage Foundation and such, the American Right had already succumbed to the ‘Boomer Establishment synthesis’:
The American Right for all its earnest efforts has been unable to construct a counter establishment that can compete with the contemporary liberal behemoth. Libertarian nostalgia for the 1920s and 1890s, social conservative nostalgia for the faux-certainties of the 1950s; paleocon isolationism; white nationalism; ‘reformicon’ tweaks to the liberal policy agenda—none of these mutually hostile and contradictory sets of ideas can challenge the Boomer Establishment synthesis. The Clintonian center-Left won the cultural and intellectual battles of its time against both the hard left and the fragmented right. The Clinton candidacy is about inevitability, about the laws of historical and institutional gravity.
And yet, and yet …
Yet though the Boomer Consensus has triumphed in the world of American institutions and ideas, in the eyes of many Americans it has not done all that well in the real world. Foreign policy, financial policy, health policy, support of the middle class, race relations, family life, public education, trade policy, city and state government management, wages: what exactly has the Boomer Consensus accomplished in these fields? Many Americans think that the Consensus is a scam and a flop when it comes to actually, well, making things better for the average person. …
The failure of the center-Left to transform its institutional and intellectual dominance into policy achievements that actually stabilize middle class life, and the failure of the center-Right to articulate a workable alternative have left a giant intellectual and political vacuum in the heart of American life.
A vacuum into which stepped the unlikely figure of Donald Trump. … Russell Mead thought in May 2016 that:
The Trump movement is not an answer to our problems, but the social instinct of revolt and rejection that powers it is a sign of social health. The tailors are frauds and the emperor is not in fact wearing any clothes: it is a good sign and not a bad sign that so many Americans are willing to say so out loud. …
We can hope that a President Clinton’s instincts for power and self-preservation will make her something better than the earnest custodian of a failing status quo, and we can hope that a President Trump would prove inspired and lucky rather than bumptiously sharp-tongued. But hope is not a plan. The likeliest forecast is that under either candidate, the slow unraveling of the liberal world order and the American domestic system will continue and possibly accelerate. The 2020 election may take place against an even darker background than what we now see; if America’s intellectuals and institutions don’t start raising their games, 2016 could soon start to look like the good old days.