The 82nd post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.
[Editorial note: If you’ve been reading the commentary since Tuesday evening, you might have noticed that Trump’s impending nomination ruined an otherwise vibrant Republican Party and has hastened the fall of the Republic itself. And that’s without even mentioning his toxic contribution to an otherwise cheerful political scene. Things were working so great, we were inspired to imagine the world as seen by the Prophets of Trumpian Doom. —MANLIUS CAPITOLINUS]
BEFORE THE TRUMP TRAIN barreled through the Northeast Corridor this year, everything was awesome. The revival of America’s economy in the late 1990s culminated in spectacular, society-wide participation in the stock market, rising steadily since 1997. Day-trading was a simple remedy for bourgeois boredom, and the very same equities mutual funds bought in 1999 are paying steady dividends today, buttressed by the solid performance of mortgage-backed securities. The low price-to-earnings ratios of the Dow Jones and NASDAQ components make them the desire of value investors throughout the world. Suggestions that the dollar could be replaced as the world’s reserve currency have steadily dwindled. Earlier efforts by oil-producing nations as well as China and Russia to settle transactions outside the dollar have lost their traction.
The American public’s interest in negotiating advantageous trade deals was evident in the broad popular push for NAFTA in 1994. The Economist was incorporated into high school reading lists as part of the Republican Party’s national curriculum standards. So great was popular interest in NAFTA that details of the negotiations were public from the beginning, setting the stage for the nationwide TPP discussion in 2015. American popular participation in hammering out otherwise complex legal instruments became an example for the possibilities of democratic government. Periodic efforts by China to undercut American industries were met with stiff resistance by the WTO, which operated under a strictly constitutional arrangement with regular reporting and collaboration requirements as well as congressional oversight. When Iraq voluntarily adopted the U.S. Constitution in 2003, emissaries from the Project for a New American Century pointed to Americans’ understanding of trade agreements as proof that democracy works.
Prior to Trump’s fascistic oratorical style, American political discourse was also awesome. The revival of Firing Line by National Review‘s editors was part of a broader shift toward civil discourse in American public life begun by Roger Ailes. Town halls across New England played host to weekly Crossfire-like public debates, where a rotating group of citizens would calmly engage in reasoned discourse about the major issues of the day—discussions that often carried over to social media, where the 140-character minimum was practically unnecessary. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign carefully avoided the bombastic style some of his backers initially expected of it. Obama opted instead for a revival of the style of the fireside chat, disowning any suggestions of the historic nature of his campaign.
The additional funding first provided by the Bush Administration to the Immigration and Nationalization Service was also part of a wider program to standardize the education of immigrants in the principles of American political practice. But the administration’s democracy-exportation business was so awesome that applications for H-1Bs, permanent residency and naturalization gradually began to fall.
Amid a solidly rising housing market and the awesome domestic computer industry, American manufacturing kept its place as an honorable profession. Though poor bets by the car industry led to a brief decline in domestic automobile manufacturing, electronics manufacturing more than picked up the slack. Layoffs among the car manufacturers simply freed up labor to be put to work by Apple, whose network of small components manufacturers in Wisconsin and Michigan became a model for widely distributed manufacturing. Everything worked exactly as the Wall Street Journal said it would.
Everything was going to be awesome. But all was not well.
THE NEW GILDED AGE had its dangers just beneath the surface. As the Agenda of American Greatness was implemented first by Clinton and then Bush, the conservative Lumpencommentariat had been left behind. They still plied their trade, dutifully sending in paeans to the Reagan Revolution and attending reformism conferences in the dilapidated offices of D.C. think tanks. The hot money had long since left the D.C. area, the Acela Express had stopped running, and newly minted graduates were returning to their home states rather than living in the coastal company towns that had drawn so many Millennials before them.
It was an awesome time for those who mattered—for the trendy, sooty-cheeked Pennsylvania coal miners with their hipster affectations, for Detroit’s computer electronics factory workers and their First World pay standards, for those who accommodated themselves to the nation-state and shamelessly disregarded Principled Conservatism™.
We should have known that the Lumpencommentariat would fall for Donald Trump. His fifth-grade rhetorical ploys were right at home in the Twittersphere—in their home. They were but blank slates to be written upon by Trump’s call for “free trade, Uber, GMOs, fracking, and … driverless cars.” “Free markets must generate material inequalities,” he would shout. “It’s how life should work.”
Trump’s constant self-contradiction was no obstacle for the Thinkpiece-Industrial Complex. Though he defended material inequalities in one breath, in the next he was all “free trade not for the sake of the few but … the many“!—beguiling crowds with his made-for-TV non-sequiturs like “the economic program of nationalism is socialism.” Only those living inside the Rust Beltway could afford the wax needed to fill their ears from such Trumpian allurements.
Trump has nothing to offer of his own. A picture-perfect example of “nationalism is socialism” cronyism, he has systematically avoided building a property empire in the United States. His preference for liquid wealth over so-called real estate solidified his appeal to the class-interests of Manhattanites and political consultants.
Nothing needs to explain the appeal of Trump other than shared class interests. His constant volleys at the complacency of the Neo-Industrial Midwest, sitting squat in the middle of the country as the edges frayed, were perfectly calibrated to take advantage of the commentariat’s bitterness.
But there is nothing to him. The GOP’s success in 2008 and 2012, capped off by its efficient reforms to the health care system and its resistance to regulatory overreach, makes the coastal Trumpist class safe to ignore. Trump’s appeal to the white writing class is a small bump in the road of America’s continuing awesomeness, assuming we don’t let him ruin the show.
Paul Ryan was right to announce the non-announcement of his non-endorsement of the not-yet-nominee, just as he had done in 2012 with a similarly imperfect GOP candidate. No need to endorse someone who will surely lose. Hillary’s sonorous rhetoric will be a safe path through the vagaries of the general election.
Everything will be just ffff—Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign. We are now crossing Flyover Territory. Please return to your seats and keep your seat belts fastened.