Dangerous Times: Thoughts on the US Presidential Election
by Mark English
“Could fear of Trump rattle Stoics, while fear of death finds no purchase?”
Dwayne Holmes was alluding to self-styled Stoic Massimo Pigliucci’s readiness – in the face of the possibility of a Trump presidency – to endorse over-the-top, emotion-driven political analysis.  Panic levels are certainly high in liberal and progressive circles, and if current trends continue and Trump wins in November they will be through the roof.
The only thing that (just about) everyone agrees on is that serious consequences will flow from this election. Not being an American, I am much more interested in the consequences for the world at large than in the consequences for the US.
Holmes notes that both candidates sound like hawks but Trump is “more blustery [and] less hawkish.” Quite so.
The key difference is that Clinton is a neocon and supported by neocons. Trump is not.
I won’t attempt to analyse Trump’s foreign policy proposals except to say that they lack the imperialist dimension of neoconservatism. The general direction of his stated intentions is to scale back foreign bases and foreign commitments (such as to NATO) and to encourage (or force) allies to bear the cost and responsibility for their own defense. This would involve quite a radical change in US foreign policy.
It’s arguable that a scaling back of commitments in far-flung places is appropriate, but obviously one would prefer (if one had the choice) to see such policies implemented by a more seasoned and less volatile commander-in-chief than Trump. Trump is a risky proposition, no matter how you look at it. But a continuation of old policies in the current circumstances (which Clinton promises) could be seen to be even riskier.
I accept that there is no way of deciding this sort of question “scientifically” or in a rigorous way, logically speaking, as it involves a reading of two very different personalities, policy questions (which in themselves raise a wide range of both practical and values-based questions), and contingent factors.
One of the frustrating but fascinating things about the politics of recent times is that many of the standard terms used to classify ideological positions no longer seem to work. Not long ago the neocons were considered conservatives by most conservatives. Christopher Hitchens was a former Trotskyist who never renounced his socialism, but even he often seemed to have more in common with neocons than with progressives on foreign policy questions. A vocal supporter of the second Iraq war, he was generally liked by conservatives (and hated to death by the left).
Things have changed however. A key turning point was that the promised weapons of mass destruction (the pretext for the invasion of Iraq) were not found. Worse, Iraq spiraled out of control and the promised stability and prosperity failed to materialize. Worse again, Americans were actively involved in various countries, fanning the flames (at least to some extent) of various uprisings and protest movements, engaging in bombing raids and special operations and in the overthrow of evil dictators like Muammar Gaddafi (who at least had the virtue of being an effective leader), and generally exacerbating the no-doubt real and deep-rooted political problems of North Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Many conservatives got the message. They had erred. Perhaps they had been duped. As a consequence, the neocons lost favor in conservative circles, and it was no surprise when the arch-neocon and veteran of a string of Republican administrations (Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush), Paul Wolfowitz, endorsed Hillary Clinton for President.
In fact, we’ve come full circle, because the neoconservative movement has its roots in various branches of the anti-Stalinist left, and it formed itself within the general framework of the Democratic Party during the 1960’s and 70’s. The magazine Commentary, edited by Norman Podhoretz, was very influential in articulating its characteristic ideological preoccupations and foreign policy stance. Wolfowitz himself was a Democrat, before he joined the Reagan administration in 1981.
Though various strands of radical and not-so-radical left-wing thought can be meaningfully identified, the old left/right divide just doesn’t really make sense anymore, if it ever did. What’s more, across the Western world, a lot of people – including many traditional conservatives, classical liberals and previously apolitical folk – are becoming more and more disgusted with the political status quo and so are voting or threatening to vote for candidates outside the mainstream or otherwise in quite radical ways (e.g. Brexit).
Conservatives are no longer conservative. The silent majority is no longer silent. Given the widespread failure of social, economic and monetary policies and increasing expectations of a prolonged period of stagnation and social unrest, it’s little wonder that the political landscape in Western countries is reshaping itself in quite dramatic ways.
Hillary Rodham was a keen Goldwater supporter before she went to Wellesley College and was introduced to radical left-wing thought. She wrote her senior thesis on Saul Alinsky. But she certainly seems to have moved away from Alinsky’s ideas – apart perhaps from his ideas on lying (he was all for it).
Hillary’s lying is legendary. All politicians do it of course, but they usually (at least if they are effective politicians) do it in restricted contexts and in rather formulaic ways that more sophisticated members of the public almost expect. They retain a degree of trust. Clinton is different and is perceived as more untrustworthy than her peers. Her lies are often strangely gratuitous. The notorious case of her account of her arrival in Bosnia was like this, not the sort of strategic lie that Alinsky advocated, but rather a totally unnecessary fabrication reminiscent of the sorts of lies that children often tell. She claimed that she and her team arrived “under sniper fire,” skipped the arrival ceremony and “just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”  But a video of the event shows her being greeted on the tarmac by Bosnian officials and an 8-year-old Muslim girl who read a poem. All was peaceful.
Both candidates have personal foibles aplenty, of course, and these foibles (or worse) are all too well-known to the general public. They are important, but only insofar as they play into a broader, political, narrative.
One old narrative that is getting new traction is associated with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s prescient warnings about the American military-industrial complex (which is often now conceptualized in terms of the broader concept of the deep state). These particular concerns about the post World War 2 American system have waxed and waned over the years and have come to the fore again in the wake of recent scandals and failed military interventions. Interestingly (and encouragingly) these disasters have prompted a questioning not just of strategic or tactical matters but also of the moral underpinnings of such foreign interventions.
During the Cold War, the USSR and the USA were engaged in a worldwide strategic battle which could be seen to have provided (it certainly did in the minds of many) its own moral justification. But since the demise of the Soviet Union, with Russia and China focused (militarily) on their respective regions rather than on the wider world, America’s military presence in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the western Pacific is looking very questionable. And doubts about the moral legitimacy of its foreign and defense policy are compounded by a loss of confidence in America’s future prospects of economic prosperity and (partly as a consequence of this) of geo-strategic power.
Economics and geography matter, and it is clear that the center of gravity of the world’s wealth is reverting to a more normal historical pattern, balanced between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. There even seems a real prospect that the West is entering a period not just of relative decline in economic and social terms but of actual decline. And, of course, those overseeing this difficult period – the promoters and implementers of recent and current financial, monetary, social and foreign policies in the West – have lost or are rapidly losing credibility.
None of this applied during the Reagan era, and arguably the neoconservatism of that period had a different cast. Current and recent neocons could be seen to be in denial, desperately seeking to re-establish an American hegemony which, in reality, is inexorably slipping away. By contrast, in the Reagan-era, American might and power were unquestioned.
Jeane Kirkpatrick was a prominent neoconservative who worked for Reagan and was the US ambassador to the United Nations. She was a controversial and divisive figure. But, as a writer at the Economist said in an obituary, “[c]ertain sentences from her most famous article, ‘Dictatorships and Double Standards’ – written on [a] summer holiday in France, published in Commentary, in November 1979 – now induce a sigh.”  Here are the sentences in question: “No idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime and anywhere, under any circumstances.” “Decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits. In Britain, the road [to democratic government] took seven centuries to traverse.” “The speed with which armies collapse, bureaucracies abdicate, and social structures dissolve once the autocrat is removed frequently surprises American policymakers.”
As I say, my main concerns regarding this election are geopolitical. Clinton’s general foreign policy orientation (and she has form on this front, remember) is dangerous in a different way from Trump’s. She represents continuity, while Trump represents discontinuity.
The problem with Clinton’s kind of continuity, however, is that it is associated with an attempt to actively resist the challenges that inexorable geopolitical and economic changes now pose to the central role that the US has played on the world stage, at least since World War 2.
There are also doubts about Hillary Clinton’s health. If it proves to be the case that she has serious health problems it would, I think, only add to the danger/instability were she to be elected. Would she step aside if her health deteriorated while she was in office? Somehow I doubt it. There are precedents here.Woodrow Wilson had a debilitating stroke and stayed in office.
And there have been many similar cases in other countries. Some occurred in the old Soviet Union. There was, for example, Leonid Brezhnev who had severe arteriosclerosis which affected his speech and other aspects of neurological functioning. His immediate successors were almost as bad but didn’t take so long to die. And then, of course, there was the sad case of the bloated-looking and alcohol-fueled Boris Yeltsin, in post-Soviet Russia (with one Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin waiting in the wings, biding his time).