If Andrew Bacevich were delivering a homily instead of a lecture, he would begin with the following text from a “prophet.”
“In America, life seems to move faster than anywhere else on the globe, and each generation is promised more than it will get, which creates in each generation, furious, bewildered rage; the rage of people who cannot find solid ground beneath their feet.”
The “prophet” is James Baldwin, and the words are from his 1955 Notes of a Native Son. Bacevich’s aim in the third year of “the age of Trump” is to persuade people that the diagnosis Baldwin offered more than half a century ago remains apt even now.
Bacevich, an author and professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University, gave his lecture, “An Age of Illusions” at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy, continuing Week Eight’s Interfaith Lecture Series, “The Power of Soft Power.”
“The essential problem we confront in our present crisis is the difficulty we Americans have in finding something solid to stand on, with many of our fellow citizens expressing their serious bewildered rage by electing Donald Trump as president,” Bacevich said.
But Trump is not the problem, he is more so a “symptom” or a “consequence” of several problems that existed before he was in the political sphere, Bacevich said. But if Trump is not the problem, then what explains the rage of “people unable to find solid ground?” Bacevich suggested that the 2016 U.S. presidential election constituted a “de facto referendum” of recent U.S. history.
“That referendum rendered a definitive judgment, the underlying consensus in forming basic United States policy since the end of the Cold War, has collapsed precepts that members of the policy elite have — for decades now — treated as self-evident, no longer command the backing or the assent of the American people,” he said.
Those who believe an impeachment of Trump will solve the problems of modern-day America, which, Bacevich said, is the view of media outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post, are “deluding themselves.”
To contextualize his point, Bacevich read another quote, “Without the Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?”
The quote is from Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, novelist John Updike’s “late 20th-century everyman.”
The end of the Cold War, Bacevich said, was “cause for celebration.” But at the same time, everyone agreed that the passing of the “era of continuing tension and occasional great danger” did not require “reflection, regret or repentance.” Bacevich has come to call that an “error of the first order.”
Following the end of the Cold War, Bacevich said policy elites claimed to “have all the answers.”
“The dawning era, these elites believed, summoned Americans to look not to their past, but to their future, exploiting vast opportunities that were now presenting themselves,” Bacevich said. “No longer obliged to threat, Communist takeovers or the risks of nuclear Armageddon, Americans could now throw caution to the winds.”
In 1989, political scientist Francis Fukuyama rose to prominence after writing an essay announcing that “history itself had ended.” Fukuyama’s end-of-history hypothesis caught fire not because it was true, but because it was “exquisitely timed.”
“It captured the mood of the moment and it played directly to a conceit that Americans had been nursing ever since the very founding of the republic, if not before,” Bacevich said.
But at the end of the Cold War, that conceit came back in full force. The essence of that American conceit can simply be stated as, “We are God’s new Israel, we represent the alpha and omega of the human story. We define the aspirations and destiny of all others. We stand for and embody freedom, even if our reigning conception of what freedom requires, allows or forbids, continuously evolves,” Bacevich said.
In the post-Cold War era, three propositions comprised the “elite consensus.” The first proposition was that “globalization of corporate capitalism held the key to wealth creation on a hitherto unimaginable scale.”
The second, “Norms derived from what we broadly call Judeo-Christian religious traditions held the key to the further expansion, and indeed the perfection, of personal autonomy.”
The third, “Muscular global leadership, exercised by the United States, held the key to promoting a stable and humane international order.”
“Unfettered neoliberalism, plus the unencumbered self, plus unabashed American assertiveness — these defined the elements of the post-Cold War consensus that formed during the first half of the ’90s,” Bacevich said. “These, plus what enthusiasts were already calling the information revolution.”
The miracle of that revolution provided the “secret sauce” that infused the emerging consensus with “cosmic inevitability.” For true believers, Bacevich said information technology served a “quasi-theological function.”
“Although God might be dead, with it, Americans found in Bill Gates and Steve Jobs nerdy, but nonetheless compelling, idols,” Bacevich said.
More immediately, in the eyes of the policy elite, the information revolution reinforced the new consensus. For those focused on political economy, the information revolution “greased the wheels” of globalized capitalism, creating vast opportunities for trade and investment.
“Information would accelerate the movement of capital goods, ideas and people,” Bacevich said. “The world itself would be flat, open and accessible to all.”
For those looking to “shed constraints on personal freedom,” information promised empowerment.
“It made identity itself something to choose, discard or modify, according to individual preference,” Bacevich said. “The heavens are now opening up: Is God dissenting?”
For members of national security organizations, the information revolution seemed certain to endow the United States with “unassailable military capabilities.”
“Properly employed armed force itself would become more precise, more decisive, even more humane,” Bacevich said. “Violence can become a means of countering evil and promoting good — with force, not to be held in reserve, but to be put to use.”
According to Bacevich, the three presidents of the post-Cold War era — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — put those propositions to the test.
“The administrations over which they presided collaborated in pursuing a common agenda; each intent on proving that the post-Cold War consensus could work, notwithstanding mounting evidence to the contrary,” Bacevich said.
To be fair, Bacevich said, that consensus did work for some.
“Globalization did make some people very rich, indeed,” he said. “In doing so, it greatly exacerbated inequality, while doing nothing to alleviate the condition of the American working class and underclass.”
The abandonment of traditional moral norms upended long-established social hierarchies. The resulting emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism did improve the status of groups long subjected to discrimination — but only to a point.
“Yet, these advances have done remarkably little to reduce the alienation and despair pervading a society that suffers from an epidemic of substance abuse, morbid obesity, teen suicide and similar afflictions,” Bacevich said. “Throw in the world’s highest incarceration rate, a seemingly insatiable appetite for pornography and mass shootings that occur with metronomic regularity, and what you have is something other than the profile of a healthy society.”
The bottom line for Bacevich: In the U.S. presidential election of 2016, Americans who considered themselves let down by the post-Cold War consensus, “signaled that they had had enough.”
“Voters who concluded that neoliberal economic policies were not working for their benefit, provided the crucial margin in electing Donald Trump president,” Bacevich said. “So too, did voters who found little to admire in a culture that seemingly takes its motto from the Outback Steakhouse chain: No rules, just right. So too, did others who found nothing to celebrate in the conversion of the United States military into a global police force that is permanently at war, especially when it is their sons and daughters who serve in repeated tours in Iran and Afghanistan with little to show as a result.”
By temperament, Bacevich considers himself a conservative and traditionalist. He is weary of revolutionary movements that, “more often than not, end up being hijacked by nefarious plotters more interested in satisfying their own ambitions than doing high ideals.”
As for the “only good thing” about Trump’s election, Bacevich borrowed an image from Thomas Jefferson: “It should serve as a fire bell in the night,” a bell that is “curing Americans from the illusion that from the White House, comes redemption.”
“By now, we ought to have had our fill of de facto monarchy,” Bacevich said. “So, in my judgment, it’s time to take another stab at an approach to governance worthy of a democratic republic.”
So, “without the Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?” Bacevich said “Rabbit” Angstrom’s question offers a good place to start. But his own answer is rooted in a conviction that our present-day problems are less quantitative than qualitative.
“Rather than simply ‘more’ — more wealth, more freedom, more attempts at bending the global order to suit our preferences — these times call for ‘different,’ ” Bacevich said. “In my view, the point of being American is to participate in creating a society that strikes the balance between wants and needs, in harmony with nature and the rest of humankind. And that is rooted in an agreed-upon conception of the common good.”
People of goodwill are likely to differ on how to fulfill such aspirations, Bacevich said, but such disagreement can provide the basis for an interesting debate, one that is essential to prospects “accelerating the decay of American civil life.”
“The real beginning of wisdom, I submit, lies in recognizing that Trump is not cause, but consequence,” he said. “A post-Cold War consensus — that promoted transnational corporate greed, mistook libertinism for liberty, and embraced militarized neo-imperialism as the essence of enlightened statecraft — created the conditions that handed Trump the presidency.”
When Trump leaves office, Bacevich said many Americans will celebrate, as much as they celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall. But as was the case back then, the real question is this: “What should come next?”
“On that occasion, the answers we embraced and formed by an extraordinary bout of hubris were deeply defective,” Bacevich said. “Perhaps next time around, chastened by our experience in the recent past, we just might be able to do slightly better.”