Post-Cold-War Consensus Collapses
By Andrew J.
Like it or not, the president of the United States
embodies America itself. The individual inhabiting the White House
has become the preeminent symbol of who we are and what we represent
as a nation and a people. In a fundamental sense, he is us.
It was not always so. Millard Fillmore, the 13th
president (1850-1853), presided over but did not personify the
American republic. He was merely the federal chief executive.
Contemporary observers did not refer to his term in office as the Age
of Fillmore. With occasional exceptions, Abraham Lincoln in
particular, much the same could be said of Fillmore’s
successors. They brought to office low expectations, which they
rarely exceeded. So when Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885) or
William Howard Taft (1909-1913) left the White House, there was no
rush to immortalize them by erecting gaudy shrines -- now known as
“presidential libraries” -- to the glory of their
presidencies. In those distant days, ex-presidents went back
home or somewhere else where they could find work.
Over the course of the past century, all that has
changed. Ours is a republic that has long since taken on the
trappings of a monarchy, with the president inhabiting rarified space
as our king-emperor. The Brits have their woman in Buckingham
Palace. We have our man in the White House.
Nominally, the Constitution assigns responsibilities and
allocates prerogatives to three co-equal branches of government.
In practice, the executive branch enjoys primacy. Prompted by a
seemingly endless series of crises since the Great Depression and
World War II, presidents have accumulated ever-greater authority,
partly through usurpation, but more often than not through
At the same time, they also took on various
extra-constitutional responsibilities. By the beginning of the
present century, Americans took it for granted that the occupant of
the Oval Office should function as prophet, moral philosopher,
style-setter, interpreter of the prevailing zeitgeist, and -- last
but hardly least -- celebrity-in-chief. In short, POTUS was the
bright star at the center of the American solar system.
As recently as a year ago, few saw in
this cult of the presidency cause for complaint. On odd
occasions, some particularly egregious bit of executive tomfoolery
might trigger grumbling about an “imperial
presidency.” Yet rarely did such complaints lead to
effective remedial action. The War
Powers Resolution of 1973 might be considered the exception that
proves the rule. Inspired by the disaster of the Vietnam War
and intended to constrain presidents from using force without
congressional buy-in and support, that particular piece of
legislation ranks alongside the Volstead
Act of 1919 (enacted to enforce Prohibition) as among the least
effective ever to become law.
In truth, influential American institutions -- investment
banks and multinational corporations, churches and universities, big
city newspapers and TV networks, the bloated national security
apparatus and both major political parties -- have found reason
aplenty to endorse a system that elevates the president to the status
of demigod. By and large, it’s been good for business,
whatever that business happens to be.
Furthermore, it’s our
president -- not some foreign dude --
who is, by common consent, the most powerful person in the universe.
For inhabitants of a nation that considers itself both
“exceptional” and “indispensable,” this seems
only right and proper. So Americans generally like it that
is the acknowledged Leader of the Free World rather than some
fresh-faced pretender from France or Canada.
Then came the Great Hysteria. Arriving with a Pearl
Harbor-like shock, it erupted on the night of November 8, 2016, just
as the news that Hillary Clinton was losing Florida and appeared
certain to lose much else besides became apparent.
Suddenly, all the habits and precedents that had
contributed to empowering the modern American presidency no longer
made sense. That a single deeply flawed individual along with a
handful of unelected associates and family members should be
entrusted with determining the fate of the planet suddenly seemed the
very definition of madness.
Emotion-laden upheavals producing
behavior that is not entirely rational are hardly unknown in the
American experience. Indeed, they recur with some frequency.
The Great Awakenings of the eighteenth
and early nineteenth
centuries are examples of the phenomenon. So also are the two
Red Scares of the twentieth century, the first
in the early 1920s and the second,
commonly known as “McCarthyism,” coinciding with the
onset of the Cold War.
Yet the response to Donald Trump’s
election, combining as it has fear, anger, bewilderment, disgust, and
something akin to despair, qualifies as an upheaval without
precedent. History itself had seemingly gone off the rails.
The crude Andrew Jackson’s 1828 ousting
of an impeccably pedigreed president, John Quincy Adams, was nothing
compared to the vulgar Donald Trump’s defeat of an impeccably
credentialed graduate of Wellesley and Yale who had served as first
lady, United States senator, and secretary of state. A
self-evidently inconceivable outcome -- all the smart people agreed
on that point -- had somehow happened anyway.
A vulgar, bombastic, thrice-married real-estate tycoon
and reality TV host as prophet, moral philosopher, style-setter,
interpreter of the prevailing zeitgeist, and chief celebrity?
The very idea seemed both absurd and intolerable.
If we have, as innumerable
commentators assert, embarked upon the Age of Trump, the defining
feature of that age might well be the single-minded determination of
those horrified and intent on ensuring its prompt termination. In
2016, TIME magazine
chose Trump as its person
of the year. In 2017, when it comes to dominating the news,
that “person” might turn out to be a group -- all those
fixated on cleansing the White House of Trump’s defiling
Egged on and abetted in every way by
Trump himself, the anti-Trump resistance has made itself the Big
Story. Lies, hate, collusion, conspiracy, fascism: rarely
has the everyday vocabulary of American politics been as ominous and
forbidding as over the past six months. Take resistance
rhetoric at face value and you might conclude that Donald Trump is
indeed the fifth horseman of the
Apocalypse, his presence in the presidential saddle eclipsing all
other concerns. Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death will just
have to wait.
The unspoken assumption of those most determined to
banish him from public life appears to be this: once he’s gone,
history will be returned to its intended path, humankind will breathe
a collective sigh of relief, and all will be well again. Yet
such an assumption strikes me as remarkably wrongheaded -- and not
merely because, should Trump prematurely depart from office, Mike
Pence will succeed him. Expectations that Trump’s ouster
will restore normalcy ignore the very factors that first handed him
the Republican nomination (with a slew of competitors wondering what
hit them) and then put him in the Oval Office (with a vastly more
seasoned and disciplined, if uninspiring, opponent left to bemoan the
injustice of it all).
Not all, but many of Trump’s supporters voted for
him for the same reason that people buy lottery tickets: Why not?
In their estimation, they had little to lose. Their loathing of
the status quo is such that they may well stick with Trump even as it
becomes increasingly obvious that his promise of salvation -- an
America made “great again” -- is not going to
Yet those who imagine that Trump’s removal will put
things right are likewise deluding themselves. To persist in
thinking that he defines the problem is to commit an error of the
first order. Trump is not cause, but consequence.
For too long, the cult of the presidency has provided an
excuse for treating politics as a melodrama staged at four-year
intervals and centering on hopes of another Roosevelt or Kennedy or
Reagan appearing as the agent of American deliverance. Donald
Trump’s ascent to the office once inhabited by those worthies
should demolish such fantasies once and for all.
How is it that someone like Trump could become president
in the first place? Blame sexism, Fox News, James Comey,
Russian meddling, and Hillary’s failure to visit Wisconsin all
you want, but a more fundamental explanation is this: the election of
2016 constituted a de facto referendum on the course of recent
American history. That referendum rendered a definitive
judgment: the underlying consensus informing U.S. policy since the
end of the Cold War has collapsed. Precepts that members of the
policy elite have long treated as self-evident no longer command the
backing or assent of the American people. Put simply: it’s the
Rabbit Poses a Question
“Without the Cold War, what’s
the point of being an American?” As the long twilight
struggle was finally winding down, Harry “Rabbit”
Angstrom, novelist John Updike’s late-twentieth-century
pondered that question. In short order, Rabbit got his answer.
So, too, after only perfunctory consultation, did his fellow
The passing of the Cold War offered
cause for celebration. On that point all agreed. Yet, as
it turned out, it did not require reflection from the public at
large. Policy elites professed to have matters well in hand.
The dawning era, they believed, summoned Americans not to think anew,
but to keep doing precisely what they were accustomed to doing,
albeit without fretting further about Communist takeovers or the
risks of nuclear Armageddon. In a world where a “single
superpower” was calling the shots, utopia was right around
the corner. All that was needed was for the United States to
demonstrate the requisite confidence and resolve.
Three specific propositions made up the elite consensus
that coalesced during the initial decade of the post-Cold-War era.
According to the first, the globalization of corporate capitalism
held the key to wealth creation on a hitherto unimaginable scale.
According to the second, jettisoning norms derived from
Judeo-Christian religious traditions held the key to the further
expansion of personal freedom. According to the third, muscular
global leadership exercised by the United States held the key to
promoting a stable and humane international order.
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 1990s -- plus what
enthusiasts called the information revolution. The miracle of
that “revolution,” gathering momentum just as the Soviet
Union was going down for the count, provided the secret sauce that
infused the emerging consensus with a sense of historical
The Cold War itself had fostered notable improvements in
computational speed and capacity, new modes of communication, and
techniques for storing, accessing, and manipulating information.
Yet, however impressive, such developments remained subsidiary to the
larger East-West competition. Only as the Cold War receded did
they move from background to forefront. For true believers,
information technology came to serve a quasi-theological function,
promising answers to life’s ultimate questions. Although
God might be dead, Americans found in Bill Gates and Steve Jobs nerdy
but compelling idols.
More immediately, in the eyes of the policy elite, the
information revolution meshed with and reinforced the policy
consensus. For those focused on the political economy, it
greased the wheels of globalized capitalism, creating vast new
opportunities for trade and investment. For those looking to
shed constraints on personal freedom, information promised
empowerment, making identity itself something to choose, discard, or
modify. For members of the national security apparatus, the
information revolution seemed certain to endow the United States with
seemingly unassailable military capabilities. That these
various enhancements would combine to improve the human condition was
taken for granted; that they would, in due course, align everybody --
from Afghans to Zimbabweans -- with American values and the American
way of life seemed more or less inevitable.
The three presidents of the post-Cold-War era -- Bill
Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama -- put these several
propositions to the test. Politics-as-theater requires us to
pretend that our 42nd, 43rd, and 44th presidents differed in
fundamental ways. In practice, however, their similarities
greatly outweighed any of those differences. Taken together,
the administrations over which they presided collaborated in pursuing
a common agenda, each intent on proving that the post-Cold-War
consensus could work in the face of mounting evidence to the
To be fair, it did work for some.
“Globalization” made some people very rich indeed. In
doing so, however, it greatly exacerbated
inequality, while doing nothing to alleviate the condition of the
American working class and underclass.
The emphasis on diversity and
multiculturalism improved the status of groups long subjected to
discrimination. Yet these advances have done remarkably little
to reduce the alienation and despair pervading a society suffering
from epidemics of chronic
substance abuse, morbid
suicide, and similar afflictions. Throw in the world’s
incarceration rate, a seemingly endless appetite for porn,
urban school systems mired
in permanent crisis, and mass
shootings that occur with metronomic regularity, and what you
have is something other than the profile of a healthy society.
As for militarized American global
leadership, it has indeed resulted in various bad actors meeting
richly deserved fates. Goodbye, Saddam. Good riddance,
Osama. Yet it has also embroiled the United States in a series
of costly, senseless, unsuccessful, and ultimately counterproductive
wars. As for the vaunted information revolution, its impact has
at best, even if those with eyeballs glued to their personal
electronic devices can’t tolerate being offline long enough to
assess the actual costs of being perpetually connected.
In November 2016, Americans who
consider themselves ill served by the post-Cold-War consensus
signaled that they had had enough. Voters not persuaded that
neoliberal economic policies, a culture taking its motto
from the Outback steakhouse chain, and a national security strategy
that employs the U.S. military as a global police force were working
to their benefit provided a crucial margin in the election of Donald
The response of the political
establishment to this extraordinary repudiation testifies to the
extent of its bankruptcy. The Republican Party still clings to
the notion that reducing taxes, cutting government red tape,
restricting abortion, curbing immigration, prohibiting flag-burning,
and increasing military spending will alleviate all that ails the
country. Meanwhile, to judge by the promises contained in their
recently unveiled (and instantly
forgotten) program for a “Better Deal,” Democrats
believe that raising the minimum wage, capping the cost of
prescription drugs, and creating apprenticeship programs for the
unemployed will return their party to the good graces of the American
In both parties embarrassingly small-bore thinking
prevails, with Republicans and Democrats equally bereft of fresh
ideas. Each party is led by aging hacks. Neither has
devised an antidote to the crisis in American politics signified by
the nomination and election of Donald Trump.
While our emperor tweets, Rome itself fiddles.
I am by temperament a conservative and a traditionalist,
wary of revolutionary movements that more often than not end up being
hijacked by nefarious plotters more interested in satisfying their
own ambitions than in pursuing high ideals. Yet even I am
prepared to admit that the status quo appears increasingly untenable.
Incremental change will not suffice. The challenge of the
moment is to embrace radicalism without succumbing to
The one good thing we can say about the election of
Donald Trump -- to borrow an image from Thomas Jefferson -- is this:
it ought to serve as a fire bell in the night. If Americans
have an ounce of sense, the Trump presidency will cure them once and
for all of the illusion that from the White House comes redemption.
By now we ought to have had enough of de facto monarchy.
By extension, Americans should come to see as intolerable
the meanness, corruption, and partisan dysfunction so much in
evidence at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue. We need
not wax sentimental over the days when Lyndon Johnson and Everett
Dirksen presided over the Senate to conclude that Mitch McConnell and
Chuck Schumer represent something other than progress. If
Congress continues to behave as contemptibly as it has in recent
years (and in recent weeks), it will, by default, allow the
conditions that have produced Trump and his cronies to prevail.
So it’s time to take another stab at an approach to
governance worthy of a democratic republic. Where to begin?
I submit that Rabbit Angstrom’s question offers a place to
start: What’s the point of being an American?
Authentic progressives and principled conservatives will
offer different answers to Rabbit’s query. My own answer
is rooted in an abiding conviction that our problems are less
quantitative than qualitative. Rather than simply more -- yet
more wealth, more freedom, more attempts at global leadership -- the
times call for different. In my view, the point of being an
American is to participate in creating a society that strikes a
balance between wants and needs, that exists in harmony with nature
and the rest of humankind, and that is rooted in an agreed upon
conception of the common good.
My own prescription for how to act
upon that statement of purpose is unlikely to find favor with most
readers of TomDispatch.
But therein lies the basis for an interesting debate, one that
is essential to prospects for stemming the accelerating decay of
American civic life.
Initiating such a debate, and so bringing into focus core
issues, will remain next to impossible, however, without first
clearing away the accumulated debris of the post-Cold-War era.
Preliminary steps in that direction, listed in no particular order,
ought to include the following:
First, abolish the Electoral College. Doing so will
preclude any further occurrence of the circumstances that twice in
recent decades cast doubt on the outcome of national elections and
thereby did far more than any foreign interference to undermine the
legitimacy of American politics.
Second, rollback gerrymandering. Doing so will help
restore competitive elections and make incumbency more tenuous.
Third, limit the impact of corporate money on elections
at all levels, if need be by amending the Constitution.
Fourth, mandate a balanced federal budget, thereby
demolishing the pretense that Americans need not choose between guns
Fifth, implement a program of national service, thereby
eliminating the All-Volunteer military and restoring the tradition of
the citizen-soldier. Doing so will help close the gap between
the military and society and enrich the prevailing conception of
citizenship. It might even encourage members of Congress to
think twice before signing off on wars that the commander-in-chief
wants to fight.
Sixth, enact tax policies that will promote greater
Seventh, increase public funding for public higher
education, thereby ensuring that college remains an option for those
who are not well-to-do.
Eighth, beyond mere “job” creation, attend to
the growing challenges of providing meaningful work -- employment
that is both rewarding and reasonably remunerative -- for those
without advanced STEM degrees.
Ninth, end the thumb-twiddling on climate change and
start treating it as the first-order national security priority that
Tenth, absent evident progress on the above, create a new
party system, breaking the current duopoly in which Republicans and
Democrats tacitly collaborate to dictate the policy agenda and
restrict the range of policy options deemed permissible.
These are not particularly original proposals and I do
not offer them as a panacea. They may, however, represent
preliminary steps toward devising some new paradigm to replace a
post-Cold-War consensus that, in promoting transnational corporate
greed, mistaking libertinism for liberty, and embracing militarized
neo-imperialism as the essence of statecraft, has paved the way for
the presidency of Donald Trump.
We can and must do better.
But doing so will require that we come up with better and truer ideas
to serve as a foundation for American politics.
Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch
regular, is the author of America’s
War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, now
out in paperback. His
next book will be an interpretive history of the United States from
the end of the Cold War to the election of Donald Trump.
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Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead,
and Tom Engelhardt's Shadow
Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in
a Single-Superpower World.
Copyright 2017 Andrew Bacevich