“There is an old Vulcan proverb:” says Mr. Spock at the beginning of Star Trek VI, “only Nixon could go to China.” What it meant is that just as Kirk, the greatest warrior in Starfleet against the Klingon Empire could be the envoy to show the Klingons that the Federation was serious about peace, only the most fanatical, sectarian anticommunist in America had the credibility to open relations with such a closed country as China, because in his zeal to rid the world of Communism he partook of bloody deeds which rendered Mao, the 20th century’s butcher of butchers, open mouthed in admiration.
Similarly, only Menachem Begin, Arab hater among Arab haters, could make peace with Egypt, only Levi Eshkol, socialist dove of doves, could legitimately lead Israel to a victory that tripled its size, and only Ariel Sharon, ‘the bulldozer’, could unilaterally disengage from Gaza.
Only Franklin Roosevelt, patrician WASP of WASPs, could bequeath the economic security of wealth redistribution to regular Americans, and only Donald Trump, the billionaire son of a billionaire who runs his real estate empire from the most ‘limousine liberal’ address in America, can convince the rural poor that a billionaire will always look out for their interests.
History is full of these ironies, but no irony of history is quite as stark as this: the conditions for democracy free-flowing can only come as a gift from a leader who has all the preconditions to become a tyrant bestriding his country, and uses those conditions to put democracy in place.
How did America become a republic? Was it merely a spontaneous flowering from the bottom of society? Of course not, it was a group of rich landowners who already controlled the country and decided that, in the long term, government in America would be more stable were many more people to have a say in how the country was run. Eventually, this republic extended its rights further and further to more and more Americans whom the original Founders did not believe intellectually or morally capable of determining the common good. Earning those rights for more Americans was a colossal struggle in every generation, and the struggle will continue well into the future. But in every case that new rights were guaranteed for our democracy, the change occurred not because the bottom of society took rights which were refused them, but because the character of the particular ruler at that point in history was democratically disposed. As a country, we were forced to wait for a Lincoln to free the slaves, a Teddy Roosevelt to bust monopolies, a Wilson to insist that democracy was the best form of government for the world, a Franklin Roosevelt to create a social safety net and a deliberative body for the nations of the world, a Truman to insist that imperial European Empires break up themselves up and guarantee a state haven for Jews, a Lyndon Johnson to enact Civil Rights and vastly extend the social safety net, an Obama to give America near-universal health care and enact gay marriage. Until a leader arose who was ready to move us forward, we were held captive by a present held captive by the past. And yet, when we elected Presidents like McKinley, Coolidge, Nixon, Reagan, George W. Bush, and Trump, and arguably for virtually every Presidency between John Quincy Adams on one side and Lincoln on the other, we we became mired still further in the dogmas of the past.
The Great Man Theory of History is miles upon miles away from the whole truth of history, but the Great Man Theory is true, and is so clearly planted in reality. It is far from the only theory of history that is true, but we ignore top-down history as history’s traditionally been interpreted at our own peril. Compare the progress of America, stymied as it’s often been, to places where revolution formented from the bottom up, rather than top down. Compare 18th Century America to France. The French Revolution was truly a people’s revolution. The end result was chaos, and once you displace the pendulum from the center, the pendulum keeps swinging for a long, long time. The chaos of the French Revolution took France ninety years to subside. In the meantime, a series of leaders ruled France who dictated by their cults of extreme personality: the ancien regime was grounded in the very 17th century Hobbesian idea that stability was guaranteed by the strongest possible sovereign. By the time Louis XVI granted concessions to enable his subjects to have more rights, it was 1789, and more than a century too late. The more liberal Estates General quickly gave way War of the First Coalition, followed by Robespierre and the Jacobins and their Reign of Terror, followed by more of the War of the First Coalition, followed by the War of the Second Coalition and the emergence of Napoleon, followed by Napoleon declaring himself Emperor, followed by the Napoleonic Wars, followed by the Bourbon Restoration monarchy, followed by the 1830 Revolution, followed by the July Monarchy, followed by the 1848 Revolution, followed by the Second Republic, followed by the President of the Second Republic – Louis Napoleon – crowning himself Emperor. The political chaos only subsided with France’s 1871 defeat in the Franco-Prussian war when Louis Napoleon was overthrown and the Third Republic was inaugurated – but not before France underwent six further years of political chaos which included multiple attempts to reestablish a monarchy, and an attempt to establish a communist state.
If I attempted to describe the chaos following Russia’s bottom-up revolution that founded the USSR, it would be still much longer…. And the ‘third world’ is still feeling the effects of the chaos which follows tyrants both foreign and native refusing to relinquish their power.
What happened in both France and Russia, and still happens in dozens upon dozens of other countries, occurs when authorities refuse to relinquish their power. It is inevitable that however relatively many or few rights people have, the ruled will correctly demand more rights than they already possess – it’s simply in our interests to do so. If the country’s leadership does not give in and clamps down, the ruled will eventually attempt to wrest power’s reins away from the ruler by force. This is the event no country should ever want, because in the anarchy of a deposed state, the next ruler is so often the political actor with the most will-to-power that commits the most extreme possible acts – it is a near-inevitablity that the ruler who follows a regime in denial about new realities will be someone like Napoleon, like Lenin, like Hitler, like Mao, like Seko, like Qaddafi, like Ayatollah Khomeini, like Milosevic, like Putin. The chaos of a bottom-up revolution rarely ends except with another ruler, still stronger and more extreme, clamping down upon chaos with a hand of iron. Afterwards, the die is cast, and the pendulum swings for generations between extreme order and extreme chaos, while good fortune comes for some other part of the globe.
At these pivotal moments, which happen in every country, we are at the mercy of whomever happens to lead us. Imagine, for a moment, that Douglas MacArthur became the President in charge of the postwar reconstruction rather than Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower. In 1950, MacArthur submitted a battle plan to Truman to evict both Kim and Mao from Korea and China, for which he required the use of no less than thirty-four atomic bombs! In 1951, MacArthur entertained a proposal to seal of North Korea by using radioactive waste. Ten years later, in a posthumously published interview, MacArthur said:
Of all the campaigns of my life, 20 major ones to be exact, [Korea was] the one I felt most sure of was the one I was deprived of waging. I could have won the war in Korea in a maximum of 10 days…. I would have dropped between 30 and 50 atomic bombs on his air bases and other depots strung across the neck of Manchuria…. It was my plan as our amphibious forces moved south to spread behind us—from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea—a belt of radioactive cobalt. It could have been spread from wagons, carts, trucks and planes…. For at least 60 years there could have been no land invasion of Korea from the north. The enemy could not have marched across that radiated belt.’
This General almost was the Republican nominee for President in 1944 and 1948. When Truman fired MacArthur in 1951, there was at least a small measure of forebodding that when MacArthur returned to America he would bring part of his army with him, and initiate a coup d’erat. MacArthur was demonstrably much more popular than Truman, and when he toured America’s major cities after his firing, he was met by ticker tape parades and hundreds of thousands in every city – intelligentsia began to wonder, if MacArthur became President and used the atomic bomb with the nonchalance of a hand grenade, would the American people even object?
But the buck stopped with Truman, not MacArthur. It was Truman’s decision to pursue the Korean War as a relatively limited engagement. There are no words for the horrors Mao and Kim would then visit upon their people for decades, but a new era demanded new requirements. In 1947, the USSR developed its own atomic bomb, and had a President MacArthur faced Stalin or Beria or Khrushchev in a nuclear war between Capitalism and Communism, would the cost have been a billion lives? Or would it have been more?
America has always been lucky in a manner other countries have not been. We were spared a MacArthur war presidency in an era when few other countries were spared those horrors. One half of the reason we were spared the tortures of other countries is that we had sound leadership in those years who made decisions based upon the principle of gradual, but virtually unceasing, empowerment of the people they ruled.
The second half of that reason is luck, or at least seems like luck. The sound decisions of every President between FDR and LBJ enabled our country thereafter to coast on the achievements of previous leadership that provided safeguards for our future – every liberal domestic reform package from The New Deal to The Great Society was was a social contract, not just between the powerful to the powerless, but between one generation and the next. They were designed not only to provide immediate relief, but long term security.
Beginning with Nixon, the decisions of our leaders turned increasingly unsound, and all the provisions for the future which enabled our prosperity began to unravel. So prosperous had we become that millions of Americans thought we could make decisions based on our immediate wishes rather than provide for the future.
This is ultimately why a Presidency like Trump’s was both so inevitable and so incredibly, unspeakably dangerous.