I wrote this article on 13 December 2019. It was pretty pessimistic even then without the Coronavirus 19 Pandemic which has killed over a quarter of a million Americans and infected over 11 million more, over a million in the past week. Over course that was not included in this article. The title then was “So the Old World Slipped Away Never to Return Again…”: the Coming Disorder of 2020. Damn I hate being right, and we still have 49 days left in the year and President Trump seems intent on destroying the country using a scorched earth policy and attempting to provoke violence as the Proud Boys and other White Supremacist and self-proclaimed “militias” which are nothing more than heavily armed right wing vigilante and terrorist groups unrecognized by any law and operating outside of the Constitutional understanding of militias. Now we are ending the year with the President refusing to concede an election he lost by a lot in terms of popular vote and the electoral college, sowing discord and doubt about the American election system and our Republic, things that erode trust at home and abroad. But anyway, enough for now, and on to what I wrote last December.
“So the Old World Slipped Away Never to Return Again…”: the Coming Disorder of 2020. 13 December 2019
It is not even Christmas and I am beginning to write about the coming year. This was provoked in part by a discussion I had with a dear friend, who also happens to be an Evangelical Christian Trump Cultist. I attempted to talk of basic middle of the road stuff and be honest about history, especially because I was a Republican for 32 years, until I returned from Iraq in 2008 and realized that we had been lied into a war that would have fit three of the four charges leveled against the Nazi War Criminals at Nuremberg.
But there was no convincing my friend of anything, even when attempting to bridge the divide using facts. To him Trump is the greatest President ever, and Obama, the worst. Of course I live in one of the “reddest” areas of Virginia and while I have quite a few liberal or progressive friends here, quite a few of the people who are also long time friends have transformed themselves from traditional conservatives who could be reasoned with to part of the Trump Cult. Such was the case with this person, every response he gave came straight from a Trump tweet, or something off of Fox News, or Rush Limbaugh. But I digress, my friend is not a bad person.
Abraham Lincoln noted:
“The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.”
It is good to remember Lincoln’s words in times of turmoil. I do, and they bring me great motivation to work, believe, and fight for justice, truth, and the belief in a spark of goodness in humanity which enables me to believe the words of the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
That being said, I believe that 2019 will be remembered in history as a time great turmoil, upheaval, and probably usher in a new epoch of war, economic, and ecological disaster. We are ending the year with the impeachment proceedings against President Trump, and threats of violence and civil war from his supporters if he is removed from office or loses the 2020 election.
I don’t want to sound like a pessimist, but as a historian I to look at the world through how human beings, governments, and businesses behave in times of crisis. In fact, human beings are the singular constant in history and in crisis human beings don’t always live up to our ideals.
When major powers and international systems of order break down, or collapse for whatever reason, instability, disorder, and primordial hatreds based on nationalism, religion, and racism rise. A vacuum is created, filled by other powers, but not without some element of travail. Edmond Taylor wrote in his classic “The Fall of the Dynasties: The Collapse of the Order, 1905-1922:
“The collapse of the great supranational — or at least supraparochial — authorities and the dissolution of long-accepted Imperial bonds released upon Europe a fearsome flood of conflicting national ambitions, of inflamed minority particularisms, of historic (sometimes almost prehistoric) irredentisms, of irreconcilable social aspirations and of rival political fanaticisms.“
The impending collapse of the old order today can be seen in a return to a more isolationist policy by the United States, rising populist, nationalist, and ethnocentric movements in Europe which are threatening the existence of the European Union. Those include Brexit, ethnic nationalism mixed with a bit of Fascism in Hungary, Italy, Poland, and great strains in France and Germany between right and left wing populist movements, but no one has found a way to deal with these Right Wing populist movements.
The common thread is the center which was the key to so much social progress, democracy, economic growth and stability, scientific advancement, and international security is giving way. In fact it has pretty much disappeared, There are many reasons for this, on the American side going back to the imperialist overreach of the George W. Bush administration, the inconsistent and detached method of the Obama administration towards the Middle East, especially Syria and Iraq, following that, the overtly populist, authoritarian, and isolationist policies of the Trump presidency, and his decidedly inconsistent, often irresponsible, and irreconcilable policies of isolationism on one hand, and militarism on the other.
Now a rejuvenated Russia is rushing to fill the void in the Middle East as well as working to destabilize its neighbors, Europe, and even the United States. The Chinese are attempting to make gains in other areas and to drive the United States out of Asia by using every element of national power: diplomacy, information, military might, and economics, while the United States following the Trump Administration’s withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership, and subsequent punishing tariffs that are hurting allies and Americans more than China the United States is now at a decided disadvantage in Asia.
I could go on, and could go into details on the causes of the current situation but they are many. What we are seeing now is the beginning of the collapse of an order that we have known most of our lives. While many people might be uneasy, most don’t view things in terms of history, in many cases because the events that led to the establishment of the current order are too distant and the witnesses to those times are few, and dying off. People today seldom study history, and even worse no longer know people, including family members who remember what happened to remind them of it.
That was quite similar to the situation in 1914. Europe had been at relative peace for a century. With the exception of the French Republic, most of Europe was still ruled by monarchies with rather limited democratic participation, if any. Barbara Tuchman wrote in her book The Proud Tower: A Portrait Of the World Before the War, 1890-1914:
“The proud tower built up through the great age of European civilization was an edifice of grandeur and passion, of riches and beauty and dark cellars. Its inhabitants lived, as compared to a later time, with more self-reliance, more confidence, more hope; greater magnificence, extravagance and elegance; more careless ease, more gaiety, more pleasure in each other’s company and conversation, more injustice and hypocrisy, more misery and want, more sentiment including false sentiment, less sufferance of mediocrity, more dignity in work, more delight in nature, more zest. The Old World had much that has since been lost, whatever may have been gained. Looking back on it from 1915, Emile Verhaeren, the Belgian Socialist poet, dedicated his pages, “With emotion, to the man I used to be.”
I believe that 2020 will the a year of multiple crises and the further erosion, if not collapse of the old order, regardless of what happens with impeachment. What will come I do not know, but I expect that at the minimum it will be unsettling and disruptive, if not catastrophic. That doesn’t mean that I am a pessimist, it means that I study history. Provided that humanity does not find a way to destroy itself, we will recover. It may not be pretty and it certainly will not be the same as it was, but we will recover.
Walter Lord wrote about this his book on American in the early Twentieth Century The Good Years: 1900-1914. In the book he wrote about how things changed for Americans as Europe plunged into war. The effects of the war were soon felt in the United States though it would not enter the war until 1917. Lord wrote:
Economics were only part of the story. Almost overnight, Americans lost a happy, easygoing, confident way of looking at things. Gone was the bright lilt of “When You Wore a Tulip”; already it was the sadly nostalgic, “There’s a Long, Long Trail a-Winding,” or the grimly suggestive, “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.” A mounting crescendo of screaming headlines… atrocity stories… U-boat sinkings… charges and counter-charges shocked the nation, jarred its faith, left a residue of doubt and dismay.
Nothing seemed simple any more. Nothing was black and white. Nothing was “right” or “wrong,” the way Theodore Roosevelt used to describe things. And as the simple problems vanished, so did the simple solutions. Trust-busting, direct primaries, arbitration treaties and all the rest. They somehow lost their glamour as exciting panaceas, and nothing took their place. But the problems grew and grew —preparedness… taxes… war… Bolshevism… disillusionment… depression… Fascism… Moscow… fallout… space… more taxes.
So the old life slipped away, never to return again, and wise men sensed it almost at once. Men like Henry White, the immensely urbane diplomat who had served the country so well. “He instinctively felt,” according to his biographer Allan Nevins, “that his world —the world of constant travel, cosmopolitan intercourse, secure comfort and culture —would never be the same again.” The Philadelphia North American felt the same way, but in blunter words: “What does this mean but that our boasted civilization has broken down?”
Perhaps it was just as well. There was much that was wrong with this old way of living —its injustices, its naivete, its waste, its smug self-assurance. Men would come along to fix all that. New laws, controls, regulations, forms filled out in triplicate would keep anybody from getting too much or too little. And swarms of consultants, researchers, special assistants, and executive committees would make sure that great men always said and did the right thing.
There would be great gains. But after all the gains had been counted, it would turn out that something was also lost —a touch of optimism, confidence, exuberance, and hope. The spirit of an era can’t be blocked out and measured, but it is there nonetheless. And in these brief, buoyant years it was a spark that somehow gave extra promise to life. By the light of this spark, men and women saw themselves as heroes shaping the world, rather than victims struggling through it.
Actually, this was nothing unique. People had seen the spark before, would surely do so again. For it can never die as long as men breathe. But sometimes it burns low, leaving men uncertain in the shadows; other times it glows bright, catching the eye with breath-taking visions of the future.
The truth is, even in the midst of crises that the spark that enables people to believe, to hope, and to labor for a better future where the possibilities of peace, justice, freedom, and progress can be realized.
2019 was a very difficult year, a year of change and turbulence, and truthfully it will probably be just the beginning; but unless we find a way to destroy ourselves before the end of the year, it will not be the end, and 2020 may be one of the most important, yet tumultuous years in human history, and I cannot say if it will end well, for the United States, or the world.