At a recent speaking engagement a member of the audience asked me what was the most significant change I had observed in the 40 years I have closely followed American politics. I answered that it would take an hour to do justice to his question and left it unanswered, but have been thinking about it since and the essay below is partly designed as an answer to this question.
When I first set foot in the United States as an immigrant in January 1969, I knew English and was a big fan of American literature, but knew little of American politics, except that I imagined it to be strongly anti-communist, which is why I chose to emigrate to America to begin with. And it couldn’t be any other way, I thought, after the publication in 1968 of Robert Conquest’s ‘Great Terror’, which demonstrated conclusively how evil communism was and the crushing of the Prague Spring the year after. The reality turned out to be very different.
I first came face to face with it when I took a course in US strategic policy offered at UCLA, where I had enrolled in the meantime. There the professor teaching it informed us that the policy of the United States government for dealing with the Soviet Union was called Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), meaning that if the Soviet Union committed aggression against America, the US threatened to kill Russia’s defenseless population. I was outraged by what I heard and told the professor that the policy is both immoral and stupid since people under communism had absolutely no say as to who their leaders were and asked him what part of the word totalitarian he did not understand. He had no answer for me but invited me to his office for a conversation. Little did I know at the time, that that professor was none other than the celebrated leftist defense intellectual and principle author of the MAD doctrine, Bernard Brodie.
Nor was Brodie an exception in this case. Both the republican and democratic parties believed in this doctrine to one extent or another even though there was zero evidence that Moscow shared their MAD beliefs. This, then, was the shaky intellectual premise on which the dominant Kissingerian détente policy was based – a policy, which meant that there was no alternative to being nice to the Soviets, despite their aggressive behavior around the globe.
Yet, even as détente and arms control ruled the day in Washington, there were unmistakable signs that a revolution against these leftist policies was gathering force. It had started in 1973 with a number of devastating articles by Albert Wohlstetter, the intellectual heavy weight and premier opponent of MAD, who accused the CIA of having systematically underestimated Soviet capabilities and, more importantly, their determination to fight and win a nuclear war. This criticism was further amplified by Ronald Reagan, who challenged president Ford for the GOP nomination and accused him of being soft on communism.
The sin of the CIA and the détente-oriented administrations that encouraged it was to ‘mirror-image’, i.e. to believe that totalitarian governments faced the same economic constraints as democratic polities did and thus draw the absurd conclusion that the Soviet Union couldn’t really spend much more than the United States as percentage of its budget – ergo the constant underestimation of the Soviet defense budget and intentions.
The CIA’s demonstrable failures then led to a momentous event in US intelligence history – the call for a competitive estimate of Soviet capabilities and intentions by teams of agency analysts and their critics, who became collectively known as Team B. The classified competition, which was approved by the government and took place in the fall of 1976, resulted in a devastating defeat for the CIA and the complete vindication of the anti-Soviet position.
In the meantime, in the same year, I had been hired by the Rand Corporation as a national security analyst, acquired security clearances and became a member of the premier national security establishment of the United States that Rand represented. One of the first op-ed pieces I published in the Los Angeles Times argued that a sure way to destroy the Soviet Union economically was to engage it in a real arms race. This op-ed earned me a dinner invitation at the house of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter, the intellectual power behind Team B, who took me under his wing and eventually introduced me to who’s who in the conservative strategic community.
In the aftermath of the Team B triumph, even though the next elections were carried by another wishy-washy liberal (Jimmy Carter), the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan convinced even the leftists that the Soviet Union was expansionist, as Team B had argued, and set the stage for the massive American rearmament under President Reagan (1980-1988). Unlike the Left, Reagan not only firmly believed that communism was evil, but also that it was weak and could be defeated. His attitude could be summed up in the four words he used to define competition with the Soviets – “we win, they lose.” So Moscow finally got the arms race they had never faced and promptly collapsed. Communism ended up on the garbage heap of history, as Reagan had promised. We won, they lost!
Yet, as often happens in American politics, the victory in the Cold War was promptly wasted by inadvertent and counter-productive policies in its aftermath. President George H. W. Bush, a decent man who had destroyed his chances of being reelected by promising not to raise taxes and then reversing himself, argued publicly for the preservation of the Soviet Union in his notorious “Chicken Kiev” speech months before the Ukrainians were to vote for independence – surely one of the most counter-productive speeches ever by an American president.
In the meantime, following the Reagan revolution, the democrat party had veered sharply to the left, as did the European elites, under the impression that the collapse of the Soviet Union essentially guaranteed that there will never be another war in Europe, in other words, there was no longer any need to spend money on defense. This liberal nostrum was reinforced with the help of the uniformly leftist mainstream media and the progressively harder left dominance in academia. In the United States, the democratic party fell under the sway of ‘identity’ politics, which ordained that the future domination of the left depended on blacks and latinos and was inevitable, if not a fait accompli already, especially after the coming to power of Barak Obama. Indeed, there was a strong leftist tilt to the electorate, but mostly in the mega-cities, university enclaves and the two left coasts. And so, leftist pundits wrote paeans to “40 More Years” (James Carville) of democratic rule without bothering to check that the US electorate was still 70% white and it was increasingly alienated from the radical left policies of Obama and company. At the beginning of Obama’s term, 59% of state legislatures, congressional representatives and governors had been democrat, eight years later only 31% were. A democratic electoral disaster of the first order nobody wanted to mention let alone blame the person responsible for this historical debacle – Barak Obama. What had happened was simple yet of profound political consequence. The democrats had managed to alienate the very electorate that had carried them to victory for years and years – the white working class.
One person that understood that better than most was the crudest and most unsophisticated of republican candidates – Donald Trump. And so his message was crude and simplistic in the extreme: nationalism, anti-globalization, anti-immigration and flag waving. Crude indeed, but also a winning message.
Which brings us to the present. Trump has been in power for 18 months and despite the visceral hatred for him in the mainstream press and the Left, he has managed to unite the republican party base by carrying out a conservative agenda, while keeping the white working class firmly behind himself. Moreover, he is creating political realities that will long outlive him in power. With the confirmation of Judge Brett Cavanough to the Supreme Court all but decided, he has created a permanent conservative majority for decades to come and is busy doing the same at the appellate courts level. He has already dealt a crushing blow to Obama’s ‘administrative state’ and delivered business from countless oppressive regulations, to say nothing of the tax reform that has transformed America into a premier investment destination.
It is still possible that the tradition of ballot advance for the out-of-power party will deliver gains to the democrats next November. If so, it will be a short-lived gain and democratic wishful thinking of impeaching Trump is just that. History appears to be repeating itself and just like with Reagan in 1980, we seem to be headed for a republican domination for the next eight years or more.
By Alex Alexiev