THE FOURTH TURNING OF THE EMPIRE, THE GRAND BARGAIN AND THE AGE OF THE ROUGH BEAST

[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.

SEPTEMBER BOOK REPORT (9/13…Nazis, Research and Grandpa Ford)

The Scarlatti Inheritance, Robert Ludlum (1971)

If the Nazis hadn’t existed, surely popular fiction writers would have needed to invent them. Exist they did, however, and, as they can never meet too many evil ends, stuff like this always goes down easy with me. This is a particularly compelling example–Ludlum was an able practitioner of this sort of thing in his heyday, from whence this derives. I read it a month ago now, so I don’t exactly remember much about what happened–for that you need at least a touch of art–but there was a whole good-vs-evil thing going on and good triumphed in the end, albeit wearily and not without cost. Never make it on telelevision these days with that kind of outmoded thinking, but I enjoyed the ride.

Civil War Arkansas, 1863: The Battle For a State, Mark Christ (2010)

Fiction research for me. On that level a gold-mine for anyone looking for info on the subject of the title. It’s just what it says–a straightforward account of the major military events in a relatively under-reported theater of the Civil War. The battles at places like Pea Ridge and Arkansas Post didn’t end up being the stuff of legend, but they were not without significance. The Union’s ability to dominate the region with relative ease thanks to a handful of able commanders who, at one point, included William Sherman in the midst of recovering the reputation he had more ore less put in jeopardy with a less than stellar performance at Shiloh, certainly made life easier for U.S. Grant elsewhere in the West, rendered Confederate sympathizers in Missouri and the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) impotent and cut off yet another potential source of valuable resources from the main body of the Confederacy. Christ employs a modest, unassuming style that probably won’t excite anyone who isn’t already interested in the subject but stays refreshingly and reliably on course for those who are.

 Pappy: The Life of John Ford, Dan Ford (1979)

This life of the great director was written by his grandson and published only a few years after Ford’s death. Recent times have brought forth longer, scholarly bios by critic/historians Scott Eyman and Joseph McBride. Although I’ve read plenty of Fordian criticism and scholarship, I haven’t read the major bios as yet (an oversight I hope to soon correct). But, however fine they are and however much fleshy detail they add to this bare-bones account, this is still an immensely valuable book for anyone even remotely interested in John Ford or, for that matter, the twentieth century movie business with which the director was even more intricately intertwined than I had imagined. Dan Ford is clear-eyed about his grandfather’s enormous strengths and weaknesses and offers a host of anecdotal detail exemplifying each.

Better than that, this account moves. Sometimes rapidly, sometimes langorously, catching a rhythm not unlike Ford’s own films. That’s a rare quality in any genre. Exceptionally so in biography, that most inherently disjointed form. It makes Ford’s life and work of a piece without straining for effect, reaching a visceral and emotional apex near the end with Dan Ford’s account of happening upon his then aging grandfather, drunk, depressed, long past making movies, collapsed on the floor of his beloved, creaking yacht (soon to be sold as a relic at fifteen cents on the dollar) and wrestling him to bed. As he left the room, the grandson, assuming the old man was dead to the world muttered some appreciative words about his grandfather’s genius and staggering legacy.

Ford immediately said: “I heard that.”

By then, the reader knows the man well enough to be surprised if he hadn’t.

This account is especially strong on Ford’s time in the OSS, which began frankly before there even was an OSS, lasted through World War II, and explains why Ford’s groundbreaking documentary film crew was ultimately connected to one major event after another: Pearl Harbor (aftermath), Midway, North Africa (highlighted by a hiliarious and finally moving account in which Ford’s crew turns a German prisoner they’ve captured over to a French officer and then–on Ford’s command–wrests him back when the Frenchman starts verbally and physically abusing him, finally turning him over to the Americans– a sequence that will surprise no one who has seen and grasped the better parts of The Prisoner of Shark Island, made in 1936 and, like a lot of Ford’s films, about the past and the future in equal measure) not to mention D-Day and Auschwitz, with side excursions into Burma and China.

Fascinating life and Dan Ford does full justice to it.

In the end, though, John Ford is a person of interest because of his art–his status as a world class filmmaker–and his grandson does well on that count, too. I didn’t agree with all his assessments of individual films, but Ford’s reputation wasn’t nearly as secure when the book was written as it is now (when it still isn’t entirely secure as no artist’s can be if his art has politics in it, not to mention art) and, even on this front, where it’s probably least valuable, the book is as good a starting point for a critical assessment as any.

Highly informative and just as enjoyable then–I hope the later bios live up to the same standard.

NOTE: I’m about to begin reviewing books for BroadwayWorld.com. I’ll post an announcement here when I submit my first review, which will be of Scott Berg’s 38 Nooses and should be up next week.

ON TO SHILOH…

Back in 1989, I left Memphis one morning and decided to visit the national park that commemorates and preserves the Civil War battlefield at Shiloh, which I consider one of the more intriguing–and somewhat neglected–moments in American history.

The park is beautifully preserved but the battlefield itself is hard to get a grip on because it ranged over miles, back and forth, for two days. No way to see it except via the driving tour.

In 1989, I was just over half-way through the 20-stop tour (stop 11 as it turned out–and I was getting out and walking at every one…ah, Youth!), when my car refused to start back up.

Let’s just say that I never got to finish the tour and my sporadically starting-and-stopping vehicle finally gave out completely in Iuka, Mississippi, at around 5:00 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. The only place that was open was a pawnshop. The owner was behind the counter talking to a customer. When I walked in, he asked if he could help me. I explained that my car had broken down about a half-mile up the road.

Then he asked where I was trying to get to.

I told him I was headed for Florida.

At which point he proceded to completely ignore me for about fifteen minutes, evidently hoping I would go away.

Finally, perhaps sensing that I wasn’t likely to leave when there was literally no place else to go, he turned back to me and said, rather icily:

“What part of Florida?”

“Tallahassee,” I said.

From then on, he couldn’t have been nicer.

Turned out I was from the right part of Florida. The northern part–which is the Southern part.

I always got the impression that if I had said Orlando I would have been left to rot and if I had said Miami I might have been thrown in jail.

Eventually, when it was determined my car was not going to start again without some new parts, the pawnshop owner (who, when he heard I had been in Memphis, told me he had been on the car lot the first time Elvis bought a Cadillac for a stranger) offered to put me up at his house. He was very concerned about me having the stay in “the nigger motel” (the town’s only motel was owned by Pakistanis and, evidently, Elvis hadn’t made much impression on the pawnshop owner after all.). I was finally able to assure him it was okay but I imagine he thought less of me. (I also did not mention that my niece Candy’s husband Billy lived in Iuka. I did not mention this partly because they were going through a nasty divorce. Also partly because the last time I had seen Billy a couple of years earlier, Candy was set to take me to the tourist part of town on some expedition or other–Mud Island if memory serves–and, just as we were ready to pull away, he had leaned in the car window and basically said “Watch out for the niggers down there…Because whatever they do to her, I’ll do to you….You hear me?”)

I heard him. And I made up my mind if I was ever in Iuka, I wouldn’t bother to let him know.

While the pawnshop owner was calling around to arrange for a tow truck and a ride to the motel, his customer (who was still hanging around, probably because I was the story of the year–it’s like that in small towns) sidled over and asked, in all earnestness:

“The Cubans ain’t taken over Tallahassee yet have they?”

I assured him, that to my knowledge, they had not.

Three days later, I left Iuka with a new fuel pump and lots and lots of, er, interesting memories.

And the certain knowledge that, someday soon, I would get back to Shiloh–the battlefield just north of the town where they were still pretending the Civil War never happened–and finish that driving tour.

Twenty-three years later, some day came:

 

No sense starting a tour of the battlefield where they fought for the soul of the nation without my stopping to pose at the monument to my namesake…

...And marking his headquarters

…And marking his headquarters

No doubt he would be proud of my reading ability….

A replica of the church for which the battle was named…I caused much laughter by cracking my head on the five-foot high doorway (I mean after it was determined that I hadn’t suffered a concussion or anything…I’m SURE nobody was laughing before that!)

Sorry, sore noggin or no…I can’t resist a pulpit!

“Verily I say unto you, thou must exchange the God of Wrath for the God of Love!”…or something along those lines…good sermon for battlefields once they’ve been memorialized!

The field where the Confederate army, marching north from Corinth, Mississippi, surprised the Union army and began driving them back toward the Tennessee River…Within an hour, the survival of the Union–and the careers of Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman–were all seriously in doubt.

By mid-morning, Union troops were in full retreat on both right and left flanks and the Confederates–having lost time while their starved troops stopped to plunder the abandoned Union camps–were again pushing hard on the center…They arrived at the open field to the left and swarmed the approach to the Sunken Road with every expectation of more Union panic, more Union retreat and certain destruction of the Army of the Tennessee ….

The view from the other side…Just past the Sunken Road, where the men from Iowa took their stand behind a line of trees…From this ground–known ever after as the Hornet’s Nest–they withstood four major Confederate assaults over eight hours…and broke the back of “the Cause” in the Western theater.

Stalking the line!

Shading my eyes while reading the monument to the Iowans who, in April of 1862, probably saved The Great Experiment…But if you want to consider it a salute, I can assure you I won’t mind.

Eventually, the Confederates brought up enough artillery to blast the Union troops out of the Hornet’s Nest. Most of the defenders escaped, the remnant surrendered…By then, the tide had been stemmed.  That evening, Sherman would approach his commanding general and say, ‘Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?’ ‘Yes,’ Grant would reply, ‘lick ’em tomorrow, though.’…The following day, the Confederates would retreat across the same ground.

 

...To valor

To valor…

Bloody Pond….where soldiers from both sides drank and bathed in the blood-stained water.

Where the dead rest…in peace I hope.

I hope it’s not twenty-three years before I get back again…but at least I can finally say I saw the whole thing once!

Tomorrow….I conclude my Southland tour with the Alabama Theater and Gone With the Wind.

(Photos, as before, courtesy of Dan Watson)