“Muscle you can’t control is worse than no muscle at all.” Brendan Frye, Brick
As the Wolf Camp mentally prepared for another day of fighting the Fury Road-style traffic into which Mopac has descended, he ruminated… as he tends to do.
This was originally going to be one post, but now I see I will have to break it up into… Three? Maybe three. We’ll see… I honestly have no idea how long I can babble on. Perhaps forever.
As they are wont to do, my thoughts drifted to the current act in the political theater… and what that says about the limits of theory – or at least the ability of political theory to control reality.
First, however, a disclaimer. Those who know me or have read this column may remember that the only thing I am sure of is that I am unsure of many things. I am politically agnostic. So, if you’re inclined to be upset about anything in these columns, be upset about that.
The Grand Old Party finds itself, with the looming Trump nomination, at the endgame of its long march toward moral conservatism – or, at least, away from fiscal conservatism. How you feel about this is largely dependent on how you fared under one or the other. Old conservatives, who stood idly by as the Party adopted dog whistle after dog whistle in an effort to lure or maintain older white voters, are aghast at what they’ve wrought. Meanwhile, those same older white voters are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore – and they are more than delighted with the Party’s capitulation in face of the Trump onslaught.
Current commentators seem equally as baffled at the evolution in the election cycle. They look at Trump as if he is an anathema to the political discourse in our country’s long history. This is one item in a long list of reasons why today’s pundits are no Walter Cronkite.
The first warning sign of what was to come was the failure of the presidency of George H.W. Bush. You read me right… Conservatives should have (and some did) been able to read the tea leaves as far back as the early 90’s.
You see, H-Dubya was the last of the Old Guard. This conservatism preached fewer regulations coupled less oversight and strong foreign policy used to the end of benefiting America’s interests overseas. In this era of conservatism, government had little interest in what people did behind closed doors.You can find stripes of this brand in Supreme Court decisions like Heart of Atlanta or Lawrence v. Texas (why does Texas have to be involved in every backwoods decision?). Here, the view was that anyone was entitled to their moral opprobrium against the actions of another, but the government should stand on the sidelines; intervening only when those actions caused societal harm.
The foundation of this traditional conservatism was that government could not control what people did, it could only incentivize how they spent. Limited government was a panacea to societal ills. By lowering taxes, governments increased income, thereby driving demand which drove employment. Says’ Law indicated that lowering business taxes would drive manufacturing, which would also create its own demand. This was the era of the Laffer Curve – You know, Supply Side (Voodoo) Economics. Bush I may have been originally skeptical, but his later policies absorbed the orthodoxy.
In this iteration, conservatism preached the higher importance of protecting America’s interests overseas than it was to regulate domestic markets. The latter were self-regulating and would ensure prosperity for all.
Percolating just under the surface, however, was a fomenting discontent. America was starting to bleed jobs… at the least middle-income, blue-collar ones that had sustained more than two generations of (largely) white men. Additionally, due to the increasing supply of workers (through integration efforts for both women and minority workers) domestic companies began to realize that increased competition in the workplace meant that they did not have to give “lavish” salaries or benefits for the same jobs anymore. What is more, they found that international trade policies and harmonized tariffs made it often cheaper to produce materials overseas than it was here in the United States (sound familiar?).
Americans found their just outrage. Remember “Made in America”? Remember “Born in the U.S.A.”? As an aside, I’ve always found the attempt by politicians to appropriate the Springsteen anthem into campaigns a little puzzling. The song is, after all, about the impact of failed political philosophies on the common working man. Both (and a host of contemporaries) were based on the frustration felt by many in the direction the country had taken (sound familiar?).
In order to maintain its (apparent) place in the world, the U.S. needed a big win. The America of the 1980’s saw rampant inflation, offshoring of jobs (before that term was cool), increased income inequality and foreign powers (supposedly) determining how much a gas station in Texas should charge for fuel. As the Soviet state crumbled, America found itself in a desperate need for another boogie man. Bush I understood this.
To that end, he fought Saddam Hussein and won. At last, America had its righteous war… Older Americans were able to assuage their anguish over the “loss” in Vietnam with the nightly CNN updates of the pounding being dished out to conscripts in the desert near the Persian Gulf.
Then, however, G-H-Dub badly miscalculated. You see, he thought that a highly publicized drubbing of a foreign strong man would slake the anger of “normal” Americans. So, he pounded the strong man’s outdated and conscripted army into rubble and won. Then he argued that overthrowing a foreign power in an unstable region was a bad idea – and he lost.
You see, H-Dubs may have been correct, but he wasn’t right, if you get my meaning. He misunderstood the true blood lust that neo-conservatives fully captured a few years later. This movement understood that Desert Storm was not its own conflict; it was, instead, an extension of Vietnam. To the generation who remembered Operation Linebacker, a technical win was never going to be enough in the desert… they wanted to see someone – anyone – pounded to dust. These people were angry. They were fully willing to quietly go to their dead-end jobs in dead-end towns, so long as they thought they lived in a Nation so powerful that their lives were more important than everyone else’s in the World.
When Bush I stopped at the Iraqi border, these people realized they’d been had. Unless it was going to destroy entire nations, these Americans thought it shouldn’t be involved anywhere, anytime, for any reason. Internationalism was not something that helped these people… it was the reason for all their ills.
Into this environment stepped a Rhodes Scholar…