Life after Trump, Part I: Living in the Lightning

Let me start of by saying that in an advanced democracy like the United States, political violence must never be tolerated. We have institutions and courts and elections expressly to manage our differences and debates. That isn’t simply how things are, that is how things should be. The ban on political violence is entrenched in both our norms and our laws and is the foundation of not simply our Constitution or our civilization, but of civilization itself. Anyone who encourages otherwise should rot.
 
Many have compared the events of the January 6 Capitol riots with the violence which occurred concurrently with the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020. The idea cannot simply be dismissed out of hand. But not being correct isn’t the same as being right. During the 2020 protests, some figures in national leadership encouraged people to do more than simply march, and cheerfully paid their bail after their arrests. AOC comes to mind. That is indeed crassly irresponsible. Damaging. Stupid.
 
But we expect different things from different people. We hold four-year-olds to different standards than college students, much less parents of four. That’s life.
 
So, while I am the polar opposite of impressed when folks like AOC engage in dubious political acts and grandstanding, I can’t say that I’m shocked or offended or mourning for the future of my country. I expect that sort of crap from young, first term Congresspeople and I weigh it against some of the less-than-wise things I did in my 20s. Yes, from time to time they besmirch their office and their place in history, but they are rabble-rousers. It’s their schtick. It isn’t like they are leaders.
 
In contrast, Trump is the president. He is the leader of the free world. The presidential standard is higher than the standard for a 31-year-old-until-recently-bartender-now-first-term-Congresswomen.
 
Even if the standard were the same, Trump has surrounded himself with people seeped in law & order conservatism and respect for American institutions like Reince Priebus, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, John Kelly, Nikki Haley, and HR McMaster. Even folks on TeamTrump that I might personally disagree with more often – such as John Bolton, Jeff Sessions and Gary Cohn – are hardly what I would call fascists or anarchists. Even if you hate any or all these men and women on ideological grounds, you must admit that they are adults and that they realize spending a month of your time encouraging the most violent portions of American society to descend on the capital to lay siege to the Capital complex isn’t a good call. I have zero doubt that all of them warned Trump against similar actions on multiple occasions.
 
I have zero doubt such warnings were the proximate reasons all no longer serve in the White House.
 
Trump knew exactly what he was doing. He was deliberately assembling a mob over the course of weeks. He deliberately encouraged them to march on the Capitol. He wasn’t shocked when they stormed the People’s House, but instead the opposite; leaks from the White House are rife with details about how he was overjoyed. Trump’s problem is he just couldn’t fathom that what he did was…wrong. Ethically, morally, institutionally, civilizationally, democratically, legally, criminally wrong.

Geopolitics has two speeds.

The first is glacial. The immutable features of land and ocean, mountain and plain, jungle and river, shape who we are, what we dream, what we can attain, what we must try, how we succeed and how we fail. But not necessarily today. The forces of geography and demography rarely play out in years. It is more often decades. We always live in the shadow of geopolitics, but we can and do and always will mold the short-term to our will.

The second speed is lightning. We can live. We can build. We can fly. We can fight. We can rage against the dying of the light. But no matter who we are or what we believe, the forces of geography and demography will always win out in the end. Germany was destined by geopolitics to soar in a century-long rise, and then history sped up and Germany crashed in a six-year cataclysmic war. The Soviet Union was similarly destined to dominate, just as history was destined to speed up with the Soviet collapse. I’d argue we are approaching the end of China’s time in the sun, and very soon history will speed up and plunge the Chinese into a long, horrible dark.

The world is a messy, often violent place. Wars over this or that patch of land, or this or that resource, have dominated all of recorded history…until recently. After World War II the Americans crafted the world’s first true global Order, wielding their unparalleled military in a manner that enabled all countries to participate in global trade without needing to protect their production, their citizens, or the ebb and flow of materials and goods shipments. We did it to purchase the loyalty of the allies to fight the Cold War, but the American rationale hardly prevented the strategy from transforming our world.

This Order is all most of us know. It is responsible for everything from peace in Europe to mass immunizations to the device you are reading this series on. But make no mistake. Our world is new. Our world is fragile. But above all our world is artificial and it bears absolutely no resemblance to the rest of the six-thousand-year saga of human history. We are able to live in our world because the Americans have been holding back the glacier, preventing the world from reverting to its long norm. But for the Americans, the globalized world is little more than a side effect of a war that ended thirty years ago. And holding back the glacier is hard.

Geopolitics always wins in the end. The glacier always lurches forward into lightning. The longer we hold back the glacier, the more furious the lightning – and the Americans have been holding back the glacier for seventy-five years.

I…I’m not sure precisely what I’m expecting to achieve with this series. An end? A beginning? A mourning for what once was? Hope for what might still be? A bit of schadenfreude? Maybe. Certainly, a double fistful of commiseration. I freely admit I’m horrified at what has transpired in DC. I’m still in a bit of shock.

What I know for certain is that globalization is over. Politically, each president who took office after the Berlin Wall fell has demonstrated ever-less interest in holding it together. In that, Trump was no outlier, but simply the next step down the road. There is no globalization without the United States providing global safety, and the globalized world has grown to the point that the United States lacks the economic and military capacity to sustain the system. Certainly, in the aftermath of January 6, the Americans no longer have the cultural capacity to even try to hold the center.

What I know for certain is that there was a coup on January 6, but it didn’t happen when the guy in paramilitary dress with a fistful of zip ties managed to break into the Gallery, or when the guy wearing the swastika shirt emblazoned with SMNE (six million is not enough) walked into the Speaker’s office, or when the guy in the Chewbacca bikini trapsed through the Capitol Rotunda where just two years ago the last president with global ambitions and a global conscience – George HW Bush – lay in state. It occurred when the acting Secretary of Defense and the Vice President called in the National Guard to eject the rioters from the Capitol complex over Trump’s express refusals. It happened January 7 when the office of the Attorney General began a criminal investigation of the President of the United States. At the time of this writing, on January 10, the United States does not have a leader.

What I know for certain is that Trump’s fall from grace has changed us a nation. If there is one thing that both diehard Trumpists and Trump’s staunchest opponents agree on, it is that the United States needs to change. The year 2021 will be the year we debate what must change, and maybe even how. This year will be about groping our way forward. About deciding what we want our political parties to be. About the role of technology in society. About law enforcement. About disease. About (in)equality. This is the year we debate both what America is and what it should be. That’s a big plate of stuff to chew through. I have little confidence we’ll finish it this year. Which means the United States is utterly incapable of dealing with the world in any meaningful way.

What I know for certain is that I’m going to try to keep my personal politics out of this series. I’m going to attempt to avoid dancing on graves or crying in corners. I’m going to attempt to avoid falling down rabbit holes on topics ranging from violence in society to the First Amendment to Congress to the American political system. I’ll try to point out when analysis veers into opinion. I’m pretty sure I’m going to fail here and there. I will try to act like I’m not on Twitter. I’m pretty sure I won’t bat a thousand on that either.

And that’s because I know one more thing for certain:

We are not simply in a time of transition. From globalization to something newer (or older). From Trump to Biden. From calm to chaos. The glacier of history has broken free. We are living in the lightning.

Coming soon: 
Life After Trump Part II: Searching for Truth in a Flood of Freedom


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