The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
    Michael Wolraich's picture

    A Warning from 1992

    Lately, I've been thinking about where things went wrong. Donald Trump is the culmination, not the genesis, of America's nationalistic trend. I suspect that the turn came, ironically, at the moment of the West's greatest triumph, when Gorbachev embraced western values of democracy and capitalism, and the Soviet Union disintegrated.

    Exploring the era, I came across this insanely prescient essay from 1992. I've never been a fan of David Gergen, but damn, he nailed this one. The article is firewalled, so I'll share a few of his predictions.

    Staggered by an economic downturn that has taken a deeper psychological toll than expected and frustrated by a paralysis in its politics, the United States toward the end of 1991 turned increasingly pessimistic, inward and nationalistic...Insistent cries came along that the nation should embrace a new philosophy of putting America first: turn a hard, flinty eye toward economic competitors, said its advocates, and curtail the long tradition of generous idealism in foreign policy.

    In a world where the outlook changes as often as the weather the question arises whether we shall ever again see a replay of early 1991, America the ascendant, or if that was the last gasp of a great nation visibly and sourly slipping. Will the United States during the 1990s still seek to build a new international regime, or will it slink away into a new isolationism? Will it remain an agent of openness and change, or will it close both its wallet and its borders?

    While it remains rich, the country will think and act as if it is poor, choosing not to accept as idealistic and expensive a role as it has played in international affairs over the past 45 years. Absent a direct challenge to its national interest Washington will be more reluctant to assert its leadership in quelling dangerous conflicts...In its economic relationships, especially with Asia, the country will be tougher and more demanding. The standard by which policies will be judged will be much less of "What's in it for the world?" than "What's in it for us?"

    In short even though the political candidates who espouse "America First" are unlikely to beat George Bush in 1992, their influence will linger. America seems destined to scale back its traditional role of international leadership even as it asserts a harder-edged policy of self-interest. It will be a superpower, but a most reluctant one. And if it fails to resolve its internal crises the face it turns toward the world will become very surly indeed.

    Moreover, despite America's claim that it gave birth to the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s, other nations had to drag the Bush administration into a more ambitious campaign against ozone depletion. Indeed over the past two years America has been widely criticized in Europe and Japan as a major obstacle to a treaty on global warming.

    Even in international trade, where the United States was for forty years the principal advocate of a liberal regime, recent trends have been worrisome. President Reagan was a strong apostle of free trade, but a 1989 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that during the 1980s most industrialized nations--including Japan--moved toward lower barriers, while the United States had the worst record for erecting new ones.

    The political turning point came in November when a little-known Democrat in Pennsylvania shellacked the state's best-known Republican in a Senate race that was widely seen as a referendum on the Bush administration. Emphasizing a theme of "taking care of our own," Democrat Harris Wofford scored heavily with a television advertisement that said: "We shouldn't put American jobs on a fast track to Mexico or a slow boat to China." Wofford's victory traumatized the White House and convinced Democrats in Washington that they could frontally attack Bush on foreign policy. Democratic presidential contenders, tapping into growing economic fears, denounced the president for spending too much time on foreign affairs while neglecting domestic problems. Their speeches were reminiscent of Congressman Richard Gephardt's call for a new economic nationalism in the last presidential campaign. That appeal met with only limited success in 1988 but in recessionary times was striking a deeper chord within the populace.

    Meanwhile the president faced a growing rebellion on his right flank that also spelled trouble in foreign affairs. Patrick Buchanan, a conservative journalist who once worked for Presidents Nixon and Reagan, declared his candidacy against Bush for the GOP nomination with a thunderous appeal for a new isolationism: bring home U.S. troops; stay out of foreign wars; eliminate foreign aid; end support for the International Monetary Fund and World Bank; treat Japan and Europe as economic predators and concentrate on "America First." David Duke, a Louisiana extremist who has become a permanent (and embarrassing) candidate for Republican office, also began to challenge President Bush with appeals to underlying racism and nativism. Neither man will defeat the president, but they will give greater legitimacy to fears and prejudices seething below the surface.

    The most striking changes in American public opinion are the growing fears that the United States is rapidly losing its economic dominance and that Japan is overtaking it. When CBS asked respondents in 1989 which country would be the number one power in the world in the next century, 47 percent named the United States and 38 percent singled out Japan. When CBS-New York Times surveyors posed the same question in October 1991, only 25 percent chose the United States and 58 percent named Japan--a 41 percent swing in only four years.

    While most Americans tend to place primary blame upon themselves for their reversal of fortune and profess admiration for the Japanese, they also believe that the Japanese and others are getting ahead through unfair economic practices. As a consequence, they are demanding that their government become less assertive in protecting others and more assertive in protecting the United States, especially its economic interests.

    Both the will and the capacity of the nation to undertake new commitments, even ones embedded in multinational arrangements, will diminish sharply if the U.S. economy stagnates during the next five years. There is thus some urgency to move ahead in laying the foundations of a new enlightened foreign policy while the public will still support it. But there is even greater urgency to address the internal crisis of the United States.

    Unless the nation embarks upon a comprehensive program of domestic renewal, the United States within a few years could become so deeply mired in its own troubles that its politics will turn even more embittered, xenophobic and inward. The specter of neo-isolationism that raised its head in late 1991 will then be but a precursor of worse to come, as reluctance to act as a leader turns into outright refusal, and international politics becomes a bare-knuckled brawl.



    Oh yeah, I remember this, I remember Gergen reacting against the Pitchfork Pat populist wing of the GOP. And Buchanan was basically the start of what we got now, which Pat and friends developed from what Pat saw under Reagan with the Reagan Dem phenomenon. To be an isolationist right winger on both trade and interventionism, that was the new punch, added to the already traditional culture warring. Gingrich revolution was following in his footsteps, and man was that 94 election shocking and depressing. No one expected it, even the right. We who really did have a lot of hope with the Clinton election (and the whole 92 campaign, an exciting Dem primary with great debates, and with Bush/Clinton/Perot thing seeming to offer real choices and actual policy discussion) were blind to the rust belt and rural not being happy at all and wanting to see gridlock.

    This pitchfork populism so disturbed me and stuck with me that I remember being extremely alarmed by a group of TPMCafe members in 2008 who decided to put pitchfork symbols on their avatars. It was like this: forgive them for they know not what they do. Every time I saw one of those symbols on someone's name I cringed. A pitchfork is a symbol of lowest common denominator mob rule. Liberals don't do that, if you are a liberal, you are a globalist as far as I am concerned, or you are not a liberal. And certainly not a progressive, it's not progress to want to go backward into your nationalist hidey hole from the rest of the world.

    Comes to mind now that the three-way election in 92 hid some of the dissatisfaction and division. Perot, his votes were an odd coalition from many sides because he was sort of a wild card, one couldn't pin down what he'd do exactly, and his country plain talk shtick implied "just folks common sense" that appealed to the disgruntled with status quo of all types. It hid some of the division.

    Edit to add. And another thing, it was very clear with Gergen how he was on the side of old school establishment Republicanism and how he felt it was an honorable way to be, and he was seeing it slip away to the populist yahoos, people like Pat Buchanan and the Falwells and Robertsons and culture wars and manipulation of the same.  Perhaps some of it started with Bush Sr. selling out to Atwater culture war manipulation in order to win. That really was a sellout of old school establishment GOP ways, and Bush Sr. knew it and probably felt a little guilt about it. Atwater, he really understood populist manipulation and was actually a pop culture hipster himself. He actually did mea culpas on his death bed for some of his evil deeds....

    But Perot was the Rust Belt protectionist ("great sucking sound") and Clinton was the global optimist. Perot was also that "let private industry tell you how"/run government luke EDS plus loony tunes black helicopter stuff. Kinda like an actually successful and friendlier Trump.

    I don't know who supposedly thought the Rust Belt was recovered after the Reagan years - we obviously knew NAFTA wasn't building up Detroit factories, and agricultural imports weren't boosting the Midwest/plains states (though mass export of corn products helped corporate farms). Eminem in Eight Mile is the urban Midwest of the 90's - kinda less gruesome than Compton, but not hopeful. 2008 foreclosed on a lot of housing tracts in the Midwest as well - what should have been firmly laid on the Republicans, but Obama played nice, undersold the marketing, avoided people-focused bailouts, and the GOP played Tea Party/Paul Revere to the rescue as a major sleight of hand.

    I actually interviewed Buchanan in 2017. I was writing a long-form article that I called the Founding Father of Trumpism. But I couldn't get my act together and then some similar pieces came out and well...

    Good points about Perot, Gingrich, Atwater. So many warning signs...

    I'd like to say a few things about Buchanan, as I was always interested in listening to what he had to say on pundit shows going back to before Crossfire, when was just a panelist on "The McLaughlin Group".  He was deeply principled and really cared about the working class and rural people as he thought they were the strength of this country. He is genuine MAGA, not the narcissist demagogue kind we have now. But what he thought did the damage was the boomer cultural revolution-having experienced up close as a main part of the Nixon's presidential campaigns--and that is what made him sympathetic to some later culture wars. The effect of the Vietnam adventure on this country therefore was central.  As long as we are talking presidents here, I think one could best align him with George Washington's "ideology".

    Unlike Trump, I think he has a strong ability to be empathetic to what was called the "silent majority" in the 70's. While he can do passionate attack debating, and was another progenitor of the rise of nasty oppo research in politics, I think he really does feel people's pain. He was always in it because he actually cared and thought about the right way to do things, not a phony. Ironic in the end that he ended up with the self-centered Nixon as the vehicle.

    Trump doesn't really care about culture wars, he just cynically uses them. Buchanan thought they were about "the soul of the country." He's like a true believer in Norman Rockwell pictures.

    Yes , of course the eroding of  our political standards is truly sad. 

    But then 

    "May 16, 2019 - Italy's government is now planning to introduce fines for NGO rescue boats of up to €5,500

    for each migrant they disembark on to Italian soil." The guardian. 


    They-some of them - have reached  the point in  the immensely cultured  "cradle of civilization"  that

    you are fined for  saving  the drowning man. Or woman. Or child. 

    Off the thread possibly. But when  powerful foreign politicians fall so low  are we reduced to

    almost being grateful that  ours' aren't  worse.





    You are fined for encouraging people to get in that boat. The left still doean't get immigration and its visceral effect.

    The US '  20th century immigration posture- half hearted approval  because  Uncle Herman and

     Aunt Gertrude came through  Ellis Island and family dynamics  require pretending we enjoy their interminable anecdotes - militates against  our fully sharing the  otherwise world wide rejection of  immigrants per se.

    Because they are "different"  and   degree of acceptance  is directedly proportionate to  similarity.

    Conditioned to feign approval ourselves, we are also unable to admit the mid century anti colonial movement  replaced unsympathetic but competent adminstrators by sympathetic but incompetent ones.

    Resulting in whole sale emigration.

    Gergen blames the political class for failing to focus on "domestic renewal." But I wonder if this turn was inevitable. Perhaps the Cold War was the glue keeping us together. For nearly half a century, the guiding principle of American foreign policy was containing the Soviet Union. This overarching objective determined our alliances, our diplomacy, our defense spending, even our sense of national self-worth. And then suddenly it was gone.


    Regarding the end of the Cold War, perhaps it is germane to remember Senator Moynihan who was staunchly anti-communist throughout his career but chastised the "Neocons" during the Reagan Era. Greg Weiner wrote an article for the National Affairs that includes the following:

    These considerations led Moynihan to his astonishingly prescient 1979 prediction, printed in Newsweek, that the Soviet Union could collapse along ethnic lines within a decade. By the early 1980s, the policy conclusion followed: Let them collapse. Attempting to accelerate the process — which was what Moynihan understood the Reagan policy to be doing — entailed actions that were prudentially and legally precarious. In a 1984 commencement address at New York University, he thus concluded: "Our grand strategy should be to wait out the Soviet Union; its time is passing. Let us resolve to be here, our old selves, with an ever surging font of ideas. When the time comes, it will be clear that in the end freedom did prevail."

    Whether this describes an opportunity that was lost or not is open for debate but there is no doubt in my mind that our "old selves" are lost and have dropped the compass that could help us get back home.

    Excellent. But then, I'm prejudiced, I so admire that man. Maybe best Senator ever.

    Not to dispute the prescience of Gergen’s article, but I would put a date marker on our country’s turn to “nationalism”, which usually could more accurately be described a jingoism, at a much earlier date. In the late 1800’s common usage turned from referring to the United States as a singular noun from the previous use as a plural noun; the United States “is” versus the United States “are”.  At the same time a great national debate took place between advocates who pushed for the US to become a great colonial empire and those who believed that to do so would change the very nature of our country and dishonor its founding principles. One of the strongest voices for expanding the empire on the side that won the debate and proceeded to capitalize [capitalization being the very purpose of most of the advocates] with military takeover through military takeover, was the strutting, pompous, vainglorious, proudly warmongering Teddy Roosevelt, a man who could not accept himself as a proven man until he had killed another man.

    A book on this period which I highly recommend is, “The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire” by Stephen Kinser. Here is the Amazon introduction.

    The bestselling author of Overthrow and The Brothers brings to life the forgotten political debate that set America’s interventionist course in the world for the twentieth century and beyond.

    How should the United States act in the world? Americans cannot decide. Sometimes we burn with righteous anger, launching foreign wars and deposing governments. Then we retreat—until the cycle begins again.

    No matter how often we debate this question, none of what we say is original. Every argument is a pale shadow of the first and greatest debate, which erupted more than a century ago. Its themes resurface every time Americans argue whether to intervene in a foreign country.

    Revealing a piece of forgotten history, Stephen Kinzer transports us to the dawn of the twentieth century, when the United States first found itself with the chance to dominate faraway lands. That prospect thrilled some Americans. It horrified others. Their debate gripped the nation.

    The country’s best-known political and intellectual leaders took sides. Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and William Randolph Hearst pushed for imperial expansion; Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, and Andrew Carnegie preached restraint. Only once before—in the period when the United States was founded—have so many brilliant Americans so eloquently debated a question so fraught with meaning for all humanity.

    All Americans, regardless of political perspective, can take inspiration from the titans who faced off in this epic confrontation. Their words are amazingly current. Every argument over America’s role in the world grows from this one. It all starts here.

    Lulu, you're conflating imperialism with isolationism. There is a nationalist element to both, but the manifestations are very different, and their proponents are diametrically opposed. TR was an imperialist who ferociously attacked the isolationists--"content to rot by inches in ignoble ease within our borders, taking no interest in what goes on beyond them.” He was pro-immigration, pro-alliance, and pro-trade. (Everyone favored tariffs at that time, but he wanted to reduce them.) So he would certainly be on Gergen's side in this debate.

    In any case, Gergen surely wasn't suggesting that this was the country's first experience with xenophobia or isolationism. For instance, the "America First" slogan he mentioned was used to oppose American involvement WWI and WWII. But those attitudes were marginalized after Pearl Harbor and remained on the sidelines throughout the Cold War. So at the time Gergen was writing, there hadn't been a strong isolationist movement for half a century.

    What I am saying and using the recommended book as evidence for is that nationalism was stoked to encourage imperialism and in a feedback loop our country’s success fed jingoistic nationalism. Because imperialism and isolationism are not at all the same, I do not see how I am conflating the terms. Yes, some of the terms we have used have overlapping relationships. I think  you are wrongly conflating isolationism with respect for sovereignty. It is quite possible to reject isolationism as unwise and unworkable in today’s world and still reject to the way we interact internationally.

    “Isolationism” has become a loaded derogatory word in our political discourse for any view that rejects militarism or economic warfare as a legitimate tool  for maintaining hegemony. I am not at all against international trade agreements, for instance. There are almost always other ways to interact with and work constructively with the world than with threats or actual use of punishing economic actions or actual military engagement.

    As long as you don't define or provide examples, it's really hard to discuss/argue. WWI broke out in 1914 - it took these Johnny Come Lately "imperialists" 3 years to become involved. Similarly with WWII - started '38-'39, but took Japan attacking us in Dec 1942 for us to declare war. After the Wall fell, we were in such aa hurry to get our "peace dividend" we left it up to Soros to pump money and people into East Europe and ex-Soviet Union while we cut USIS and other State services.

    Post-war China occupied Xinjiang and Tibet, while Russia expanded the Soviet Union post-revolution to cover about 20 E. European and Central Asian countries including controlling Mongolia for decades and grabbing some of Japan's islands the last days of the war.

    Meanwhile I have trouble finding new US territory after the 1898 Spanish-American War, which was largely a Monroe Doctrine act to put to rest European meddling (and similarly we quashed the Bolivar Revolution from spreading to the Caribbean).

    It's pretty hard to describe the Korean War as "imperialism", and the Vietnam War *was* a serious effort to stop the spread of the vicious form of Communism in SE Asia -halfway successful, actually - but while we could have taken European countries after WWII, all I see are a few coups elsewhere andd then a long unproftable presence in Iraq/Afghanistan post-9/11. Please explain how this jibes with classical Imperialism, like Napoleon conquering Europe, Spain taking Latin America, and Britain occupying territories around the world and subjugating governments and economies *completely*, putting its own regents and trading companies in charge. See how Russia treats Crimea and the Azov Sea - fully integrated in the Russian Empire after what, 5 years?

    And while we largely stole Florida and the Southwest, we *did* purchase the Louisiana Territory and Alaska - unusual for imperialists - granted the rights of the natives who lived there were largely trampled. Mexico we even invited into a trade agreement.

    The distinction I'm trying to make is that Gergen was talking about the rise of isolationism--a loose term that includes opposition to military intervention but also to free trade, environmental agreements, international aid, immigration, etc. I'm sorry you don't like the term, but it has long and relevant history.

    By contrast, you're talking about imperialism, which is essentially the opposite in that imperialists support military intervention and international engagement. It's apples and oranges. Or maybe apples and anti-apples.

    There's also conflating being anti-imperialist with being anti-interventionist. There's a difference and Mark Twain was one who was wont to elaborate on that difference. That said, his thoughts on this whole thing were also highly affected by his visceral loathing for the Ottoman Empire in particular, and the results of it, to the point where he wrote some very ugly prejudiced things about Turks and Muslims, here is just one little example. Notice he was not negative about French empire there.Twain was pro-western culture to his core, I dare say today he would be mocking those who talk like western culture is the source of all evil, not a big fan of going backward, very proud of the American experiment. And would probably be pro-EU and making fun of Brexiteers.

    Lulu, you neglected to acknowledge in your comment that Michael, along with being the host of this website, is a scholar of Theo. Roosevelt as a catalyst of change in this country, with his own book on same, while recommending another. Maybe you had forgotten that? So I'm doing it for Michael, because might be awkward for him to do so. Michael: no need to say anything. 

    Thanks, AA ;) I'm not really promoting the book at this point, though I appreciate the call out. That said, it's pretty relevant to the 2020 Dem primary.

    It was not to plug the book so much as to say: do realize who it is you are advising to read up on Teddy Roosevelt?

    "Teaching granny to suck eggs" is how I heard it.

    Arta, I did not forget that Michael wrote a book on TR. Not having read it but having read about it and listened to him discuss it I see it as about a different part of TR's career and on a different subject of that career. Yeah, I am glad for progressive achievements and I like the National Parks. I do expect that Michael has some, probably a lot, of expertise on TR's entire life work. I very much doubt he will deny that TR was a strong effective warmonger who helped greatly in the imperial push for the U.S. seizure of Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines and the annexation of Hawaii, all in 1898 and all significant to his fame. 

    Arta, I did not forget that Michael wrote a book on TR  OK, great, I only mentioned it because that's the way what you said came across to me and now that's cleared up.

    I'm pretty sure Michael would deny all that - sure, Teddy was the best known figure, but only fought one battle in Cuba, while Pershing who fought in the Phillipines was no slacker, and there was an array of other known officers (Leonard Wood,etc) in positions of power. Overall, Teddy was extremely lucky to come out of this one incident alive, as poorly prepared as it was - assigning him agency over the whole war, Caribbean and Pacific, is a bit far-fetched.

    More important, why do you give a shit that US "imperialists" go to war against a European "imperialist", and why do you seem only unhappy with us? Was Spain such a brilliant humanitarian taskmaster to its 20+ colonies? Would it have been better if we raped our way through Cuba and made them speak English, perhaps converting them to a more mainstream US religion? (say New York style Catholicism of the 19th Century, or even Shakers and Quakers...)

    PS - Hawaii had nothing to do with Roosevelt or the Spanish-American War, with its 1898 annexation largely a coincidence from a coup by US settlers a few years before.

    Actually, Lulu's right about that. As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, TR was the McKinley administration's biggest warhawk and worked to undermine his more cautious boss. He personally gave the order to send Admiral Dewey to the Philippines when the Secretary was out of the office. Then he recruited his own militia to fight behind him in Cuba. In general, he was a big, big proponent of exercising U.S. military power.

    Well that's embarrassing - focused too much on the war itself, & not on Teddy's bio before.
    So to be clear, yes, Lulu, you were right - at least about my paragraph 1, possibly the "coincidence" of turning the 1893 coup in Hawaii into a territory in 1898 in paragraph 3.

    I'd still question why Spanish imperialists are better than American imperialists, and would say 1898 looks to be the close of America's more traditional land grab imperialism approach - we can debate which conflagrations in the 20th Century are truly imperialist vs. something less say objectionable.

    Perhaps consider buying a copy? Maybe reviewing it on Amazon? I don't constantly ask people for money like Josh Marshall, but it seems like a small gesture of appreciation.

    PS You might even enjoy it

    Delighted to.  Did I miss it?  What is the name of the newest book?

    Still the same old Roosevelt book. Unless you're really behind the times. But I appreciate the interest!

    Tossed the reviews I remembered over in the Creative Corner - let me know if more.
    (should mob flash Amazon, eh?)

    I have that one.  Read it aloud to my husband and we both loved it.  I thought you said you wrote another.  I learned much more than my husband, but that’s because he knew more than I did to start with. I even have your autograph!!!

    It's drifting off the thread but I am much less convinced than I once was of the universal failure of colonialism . 

    The gains  of individual personal self respect, and national economic development  expected from Independence were often real and achieved. As were sadly the  millions  of Indian murders that accompanied independence . And continue..

     And a major portion of  the "developed world"  today violently  disagrees about absorbing refugees from countries where the unhappy peace  once imposed by a Foreign Legion battalion now is thought to justify  a nuclear armory. 

    And it raises very strong questions about the possibility of there ever being a two state solution in Israel.

    Always been interesting to me that Japanophobia really peaked there, and so did Japan's stock market, real economy and influence over the U.S.  So much of what we now hear about in terms of China (they own all our external debt and could bankrupt us!) is right out of the old Japan script.  By the time everyone believed it, it stopped being true.

    Along the lines of this essay, I'd recommend taking a look at Robert Reich's "The Work of Nations," which also seems prophetic and is from the same time.

    Yes such a good point. Also reminds me of how, as a boomer, much of my attitude towards life as a young adult was informed around economists preaching that it was not possible to have low unemployment and low inflation at the same time, that life would always be affected by one or the other. And that the enormous U.S. debt could never be conquered. And that as the largest generation ever we were so screwed and would continually be fighting to afford things we needed or fighting each other for scarce jobs. Thence came the second Clinton administration. Pfffft....all those things up in smoke. The only constant: change (a nostrum which happens to nicely mimic evolutionary theory.)

    Speaking of big broad geopolitical pictures, and books, I just discovered that a writer famous for both has a new book out. Don't know how I missed that; maybe others did, too. Here is The Guardian's review

    Upheaval by Jared Diamond review – how nations cope with crisis

    Nativism, complacency, suspicion of neighbours … this timely study warns that democracy is fragile

    I see that the NYTimes reviewer sort of panned his whole personal-similar-to-international premise, though: What to Do When You’re a Country in Crisis

    Here is a book tour interview by an interviewer who is particularly good.

    I loved Giridharadas' take-down. These self-important "thought leaders" drive me nuts. Guns, Germs, and Steel was great, but since then...

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