[NOTE: I’ve been promising this one for a while and, barring truly unforeseen developments, it will be my major statement on Election Year 2020. Nothing much has changed since 2016 and I commented plenty then. I’ll probably still drop a humorous aside now and again. (Though with the clownish Democratic nomination process now winnowed down to Bernie and Biden, the clown show having predictably ended with the top clowns emerging from the pack, even the comedic value of the race is likely to diminish. The general election will consist of a cat toying with a half-dead mouse, which isn’t really my kind of humor). Short of assassination, the Overlords have shot their collective wad, so there isn’t much left to say. Donald Trump isn’t up against J. Edgar Hoover and Allen Dulles. He is opposed by morons…and only morons. Get ready for four more years. For those who have other hopes, be warned that you will find no comfort in the following. But I can’t promise you wont learn something!]
Patton is treated as if he were the spirit of war, yet the movie begs the fundamental question about its hero: Is this man the kind of man a country needs when it’s at war?
(Pauline Kael, review of Patton, in The New Yorker, Jan. 31, 1970)
There is a soul to an army as well as to the individual man, and no general can accomplish the full work of his army unless he commands the soul of his men, as well as their bodies and legs. (William Tecumseh Sherman)
The secret of victory lies not wholly in knowledge. It lurks invisible in the vitalizing spark, intangible, yet evident as lightning–the warrior soul. (George S. Patton)
(Introductory quotes to The Soul of Battle, Victor Davis Hanson, 1999)
Pauline Kael was often good at distilling things to their essence. Her quote above is a version of the Good Liberal’s Eternal Question, nearly as succinct as the Question itself:
Are we there yet?
Do we still need the Rough Beasts?
Can’t we just talk this out?
Is this the kind of man a country needs when it’s at war?
Hanson’s book, coming nearly thirty years later, evincing a knowledge of the movie Kael was reviewing, perhaps of the review itself, and certainly of the mindset behind the review, which Kael strove to represent, plays as a kind of professional military historian’s answer record.
And the historian’s answer?
Only if you want to win.
And therein lies the rub.
These days, Hanson, whose opinion of the movie wasn’t much different than Kael’s is better known as a political columnist. In twenty years, he’s gone from being a Truman/Kennedy style liberal to a Bush Republican to a solid Trump supporter, all without changing his basic views, though he’s sometimes been a little slow to recognize the speed at which history can leave a man behind while Empires are busy collapsing…or at very least evolving.
His contention all along has been that men like William Sherman and George Patton are in a long line of heroes produced by Western Civilization’s history and mythology going back to the Greeks. Such figures rise to the surface only when there’s a dirty job to be done and are soon dismissed once they are no longer deemed necessary.
I find the theory compelling, with a lot to support it (even if I have to assert the not insignificant caveat that it focuses only on those who succeeded in accomplishing Civilization’s reluctantly appointed tasks–Hitler himself was a bit of a rough cob after all). Sticking to winners, I’ve even expanded it a bit.
To the three subjects of Hanson’s original thesis, the ancient Theban Farmer General Epaminondas, Crazy Billy Sherman and Patton the Primitive, we can, just for starters, add the Heretic Joan of Arc, Savage Andy Jackson, the Drunkard Sam Grant, Lincoln the Rube, the Mad Bomber Curtis LeMay, Churchill the Warmonger.
Lincoln may have had the best answer to Are we there yet?, when, assailed by reports of Grant the Drunkard, Grant the Butcher, Grant the Unfeeling Monster willing to throw away his men’s lives without a second thought, said simply “I cant afford to lose this man. He fights!”
So it has been, again and again, and not just in history.
Hanson, trained as a classicist, also periodically makes reference to the lonely heroes of Greek mythology, from Homer and Sophocles on down, and of American westerns.
Again the connection is apt. It’s why the western endures and outstrips every other Hollywood genre in historical and emotional resonance: It’s why Ethan Edwards turns from the open door at the end of The Searchers; why Will Kane throws his badge in the dust of High Noon‘s street; why Shane rides out of the valley slumped over his saddle having rid that valley of guns the way Churchill fulfilled his pledge to “rid the world of his (Hitler’s) shadow,” only to be turned out of office by high-minded voters at the first opportunity once he had done just that.
I was surprised in 2015 and 2016 when Hanson took many months to recognize Donald Trump as one of his crude, vain, unpolished men (Rough Beast is my own designation) who step forward in Democracy’s hard, existential moments. Once he took on the task of explaining why Trump fit the mold (just before the 2016 election) it was easy enough. Compared to Patton or Sherman (a stout supporter of slavery, it was disunion he had issues with), or even Harry Truman, Trump’s a beacon of Enlightenment, a softy even. But he’ll do for the moment.
I think one problem Hanson had with Trump in the beginning was what I’ll call Tom Brokaw Syndrome, summed up by Brokaw’s pained, puzzled expression early in the 2016 primary season, when he was a guest on somebody’s MSNBC show and insisted Things just aren’t that bad! and it wasn’t yet clear just how many million people thought For you maybe.
Like a lot of intellectuals, Hanson wasn’t out front, but, unlike Brokaw and many others, he at least caught on.
If millions are voting for Trump, things must be worse than I thought.
And so they were. Like most professional historians who venture into political commentary, Hanson is much stronger on history than current events, just as Pauline Kael was much stronger on film criticism than philosophy.
Having no professional credentials myself–I really am just a blogger–I’ll take a moment to outline my own world view.
Start with the obvious.
The absence of any intelligentsia or punditry able to gauge his purpose, policies or effectiveness, is the principal reason Trump’s in a position to impose any purpose or policy at all. There’s no question Trump saw in our contemporary cultural collapse–a condition, as I’ve pointed out before, of which he may have been the single biggest beneficiary–a chance to do something unprecedented. While others of his generation with presidential ambitions went about pursuing them the same old way, becoming what the Overlords demanded, learning to take orders, he went about becoming himself. And when he was ready to present himself as a political candidate it was himself we got: crude, vain, ambitious…and proud of it!
Also supremely focused and ready to take his voice and his case straight to the People, whom he trusted, even worshiped, in a way no traditional politician could. That they trusted and worshiped him in return should be no surprise and, unless you really are invested in the idea that Professionalism is the Path of Progress, no cause for alarm.
And yet alarm rings through the land. It rings in the face of more peace, prosperity and security in a three-year stretch than anyone had even imagined possible in fifty-plus years of misgovernance, the last thirty-five better described as malgovernance, irrespective of who was in charge at any given moment.
It rings in the face of Reaganomics (put on Steroids by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who, post-Presidency, gorged themselves on eight and nine-figure personal fortunes as a reward for their services) having finally been proven a fraud; of Free Trade (never really Free and never really Trade) being punched in the nose; of North Korea going silent; of China backing down in a “trade war”; of high-ranking terrorists being killed at such an alarming rate that the last couple barely made headlines. The alarm rings in the face of prison reform, the best wage hikes in decades, low inflation, employment numbers that have disproportionately benefited minorities and poor people, a jobs training effort that threatens to lift millions out of poverty and off food stamps, etc. etc. etc.
It rings through constant talk, backed by occasional action, of bringing the boys home.
Boy does it ring through that.
At some point one is tempted to conclude that the old orthodoxies were not merely insufficient at solving problems but were imposed to create them.
So concluded Donald Trump. If you quaked at his coming or are bothered by his presence on what, after all, is not a battlefield–not a place were a Saint Joan or a Billy Sherman or a George Patton could see clearly the best way forward while others remained trapped in the orthodoxies of Good Taste and, even more hilariously, Decency–that probably means you were as comfortable with the old Narratives as the plantation class of Ye Olde Confederacy was with theirs. If you were a Liberal, then Reagan and the Bushes suddenly didn’t seem all that bad. If you were a Conservative then Obama or the Clintons the same. At least they all played by the same rules.
Those were the rules of the Grand Bargain, where, circa 1980, Democrats took the Culture and Republicans took the Economy. If one or the other happened to ascend for a moment they made sure to rig the game in a manner their putative opponents could recognize and everybody got fat (and protected from prosecution, no matter how many “investigations” were launched) so long as they stayed within the carefully constructed guidelines which certainly had nothing to do with preserving either the culture or the economy.
And meanwhile back at the D.C. Ranch?
Well something that called itself the Intelligence Community, nascent in the First World War, powerful by the end of the Second, “necessary” by the Dawn of the Cold War, had grown up inside the newly imperial government. Such an apparatus may not be necessary to a nation, certainly not to a free nation, but it is always crucial to the maintenance of an Empire. Whether or not the leap to Empire, begun in the Spanish American War, taken as a given by the end of WWII, was a good idea is debatable, but the unwillingness to shoulder the moral burden–the pretense that we could maintain our notional idea of a Nation of Settlers (rather than Conquerors, or, more disingenuously, “Immigrants”) sufficiently well to keep everyone in line on the home front when it was time to make the ultimate sacrifice has proven disastrous. One does not need to be a Trumpian to realize he is a necessary corrective to decades of preening hypocrisy, endless war and the normalization of a two-tiered society where some have all and most have just enough to keep them voting for Republicans and Democrats, cycle after endless cycle (and turning to loony options like Socialists and Greens and Libertarians when they stray).
I confess I did not see him, or anyone like him, coming until he was here. I assumed the Overlords had stifled all dissent. When you find yourself with a lifetime of being asked to choose between Ronald Reagan or Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton or Bob Dole, Al Gore or George W. Bush, Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, it becomes very easy to think the cage is strong enough no one can ever rattle it.
Besides it had all proceeded so smoothly.
The Empire had presented itself in neat epochs:
First Turning the Leap: 1945–1963
Second Turning the Sorting: 1963-1980
Third Turning the Frozen Silence: 1980-2016
I thought that 2016 would be a much later number, occurring sometime in the next 50-100 years, with the fourth turning coming when we collapsed within and the world’s new powers (China, India, the EU, maybe even Russia or some Mid-East coalition) moved in to mop up the leftovers.
Then came Trump…and all bets were off.
They still are. I am more or less in agreement with John Michael Greer, the sci-fi novelist and professional Druid who has been the sanest and most insightful commentator I’ve found on our current predicament–this is more likely a temporary speed-bump along the road to Decline and Fall than any kind of reversal.
But Trump has at least made it possible to think about national renewal and drawing down the Empire in such a way that the world doesn’t collapse into a series of smoking craters or piles of ash and bone. Like the necessary men who have come before him, he will only be redeemed by history if his side wins and after he is safely dead. If not, he’ll join history’s villains, as all the figures I mentioned above would have if their side had lost.
Heck half of them are reviled still (Churchill the Warmonger is now Churchill the Racist, Sherman, the most humane of the major Civil War generals is counted the bloodthirstiest, the faith Jeanne D’Arc was willing to die for proves she was a bigot, and so on and so on).
Since the matter of his victory or defeat will be purely political (as opposed to military or intellectual)–and the chance of any final victory (like the Survival of the American Experiment) is slim–Donald Trump will likely be an even more problematic figure. My own prediction, safely rendered since none of us will live to see it confirmed or denied, is that his long-term legacy will be the question that consumes, perhaps vexes, whoever replaces us.
How did they ever let it come to this?
We are too close to the problem to do anything but stay in our corners and rant and rave and, once we are out of breath, suck our collective thumbs.
How those who will own the future answer that question will determine whether they last any longer than we did.
All I know is that, whatever happens in November, the die is cast. The Old Guard has come at Donald Trump with everything it has and he is stronger than ever. He’ll stand for re-election against either a Socialist version of George McGovern or an enfeebled version of Fritz Mondale.
The Grand Bargain has unraveled.
The Fourth Turning is here. The Rough Beast has come, like him, want him, need him or not. The more Peace and Prosperity he threatens us with, the louder will be the Tumult and the Shouting and the more certain he won’t be invited to any state dinners once we return to our Destiny.
Ain’t that a kick in the head.