It is said that history is recorded by its victors. Apart from the traditional understanding of this maxim, we at The Mendenhall offer another interpretation: that ultimate victory does not come from those who fight the battles, but from those who write of them. The history of an era, as written and interpreted by its intellectuals, not only allows future generations to look back and learn the lessons of their predecessors, but also sets the cultural tone for years to come. So vital is the emergence of a rational culture to the achievement of our own ideals, we have taken it upon ourselves at the end of each year to summarize and analyze the year previous from a capitalist, pro-liberty perspective.
It is in that spirit that we look back on the events of the last twelve months often with frustration, occasionally with the pride of hard-fought victories, and always with a love for our country and the ideals that it was founded upon and may once again embody.
It has been a year of rivalry, of petty acrimony and scandal. As we set out to review and consider the events of 2017, as a publication which prides itself on prioritizing ideas, values, and the power of philosophical trends, we found ourselves somewhat dismayed at the seemingly non-ideological nature of our nation’s political and cultural environment over the last year. That said, even in a time devoid of principled stands and debates over moral convictions, philosophy and ideas are ever present and ever powerful, and a firm understanding of our country’s cultural trajectory depends upon successfully uncovering and identifying them. Though the ideological dividing lines that mark American politics may be nowhere near as clear as they when we began this tradition, they are still the rudder and propellers beneath the surface, driving us along and setting our course. In the greater scope of things, the scandal and pettiness above deck will be as fleeting as the weather. Nonetheless, in a time so ridden with it, we cannot blame the average news consumer for being snowblind.
From the lingering Trump-related scandals and gaffes which pocked the administration’s beginning to sex-related controversies which troubled the year’s end, both ends of the political spectrum have been afflicted by seedy revelations which the other party has used instrumentally to spread guilt by association. The allegations against Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore gave Democrats a win in a state with a Republican governor and supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature. Multiple allegations against Democrat Al Franken combined with embarrassing photographs have led him to pledge to resign some time in the coming year. Long time Democratic congressman John Conyers’ departure brought confusing responses from Democratic leaders who at first defended and endorsed him, then just as quickly cast him out. And beyond politics, revelations against notable celebrities and media figures such as film producer Harvey Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey, and NBC staple Matt Lauer have led to a cascade of accusations against notable figures in and out of public office, with both sides often wearing their schadenfreude openly as even figures with only semi-political connotations were brought to reputational ruin.
Such scandal, however, is mere empty calories in a nation’s political diet– a cheap substitute for a shortage of substance from factions which lack any clear direction to offer the country. On the left, we have a Democratic Party which, in addition to its aging leadership and years-long failure to offer up new talent, cannot manage to find a message to which the average American can relate. Consumed with class warfare rhetoric for which Americans have never had much taste, incessant accusations of racism in an increasingly pluralistic society, and social issues that personally affect only single-digit percentages of the population, Democrats have abandoned the issues of economic growth and stability, national security, and real (read: non-hyperbolic) discussions of fiscal policy.
Meanwhile, Republicans, now commanding the White House and both houses of the legislature find themselves handicapped by the very Big Tent model which they have relied upon since Reagan and stymied in the act of governing. Lacking a shared vision, the GOP, which—as is often noted—in any other country would not be one party but three, meets its greatest challenges only after it has secured a clear majority. Add to this the complication of a devoutly pragmatic Republican president who has few issue stances which have not already been changed at least once, and we arrive at our current situation of a party which has offered a much looser, less coherent program of action than what Barack Obama offered to the Democrats during his eight years. At a time when domestic issues overwhelm foreign affairs and—rhetoric by the White House and Democrats aside—the current administration is far more passive to the will of Congress than any in recent memory, it falls to Republican legislators to build a case for themselves by the midterm elections in November.
Matters at Home
Partly a result of that shortage of ideological coherence, partly a conflict between the GOP agenda and Trump’s campaign promises, and partly a result of personalities, in its first year the Trump administration has struggled to define an agenda and show constructive engagement with Republican leadership. We noted in the past how Democrats failed (and continue to fail) to cultivate any new talent, but the Trump era of Republican leadership appears to be outright destroying the career trajectories of prominent Republicans. Reince Priebus’ ouster from the chief of staff position at the end of July was an unsightly turn for a figure who had drawn many conservatives’ ire for jumping aboard Trump’s platform. Press Secretary Sean Spicer left after months of contentious relations with the White House Press Corps. Advisor Sebastian Gorka appears to have been (or felt) pushed out by the Steve-Bannon-dominated element of the White House. Others left more subtly. Communications director Mike Dubke resigned at the beginning of June, and it was announced in the final weeks of the year that longtime Trump associate Omarosa Manigault-Newman will be leaving in January, though reports are mixed as to whether she is resigning or being terminated.
Other wounds have been more self-inflicted. Gen. Mike Flynn’s historically short tenure as national security advisor ended in disrepute which has brought both him and his son under investigation for serious offenses and abuse of office. Rep. Tom Price, a leading Republican figure in the House and one-time candidate for speaker, enjoyed only a short tenure as HHS secretary before his scandalous use of public funds for air travel this year invited condemnations from both parties and led to his resignation. Anthony Scaramucci’s two week stint as White House communications director in July ended embarrassingly as a result of an expletive-filled interview in which he insulted and demeaned other administration officials including Priebus and Steve Bannon. Bannon, despite his prominent role in Trump’s campaign, appeared constantly embattled during his time as White House advisor and was ultimately fired as his disagreements with the president became more overt. Since then, his attempts to use Trump’s name to promote a populist-nationalist agenda even when in direct contradiction with Trump’s agenda have been awkward and emblematic of the way that a populist faction in the GOP have used Trump as a gateway into power. His endorsement of Roy Moore in Alabama as the true “Trump” candidate even as Trump endorsed Moore’s primary opponent Luther Strange demonstrated the tensions between the Trump movement’s outsider bent and their hero’s attainment of the most insider of insider positions.
Bucking a trend, one prominent and successful personnel placement by Trump and Republican legislators this year was the nomination and confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice in Neil Gorsuch as replacement—so much as one ever can be—to the late Antonin Scalia. Gorsuch’s nomination vindicated Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans’ choice to take their chances in refusing to confirm President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. Sadly, the late hour in Obama’s presidency at which Scalia passed revealed the lacking sense of fair play on both sides of the aisle, with many on the left averring that the Senate was obligated to confirm Merrick Garland since Obama was president when the seat became vacant and others on the right alleging that Obama had had an obligation to defer making a nomination to the next president. It was yet another sad display of the diminished respect for rules which increasingly plagues both ends of the political spectrum. Fortunately, process prevailed and elected officials were at least somewhat better tempered than the worst of their partymen. As for the Court, Gorsuch has thus far proven to be a worthy successor to Antonin Scalia, and we look forward to more of his legal opinions in the years to come.
At year’s end, President Trump appears to have somewhat tempered the untethered messaging approach that he adopted during the campaign and early months of the administration. Outbursts still arise on occasion, but the arrival of Gen. John Kelly as White House chief of staff appears to have had a calming, ordering effect on both the White House and the president and, on the margin, to have lessened the contention between the White House and Republican legislators in a way that Priebus did not. The White House has yet to demonstrate an ability to set and coordinate a successful legislative agenda with congressional leaders, but the value of doing so depends on what one expects that agenda to be. With a president who has historically been far to the left of most Republicans on healthcare and who apparently feels the need to fulfill a campaign platform built on economically destructive anti-trade and anti-immigration (even anti-legal-immigration!) policies, it seems the perfect time for Republicans to fulfill their pledges to reduce the power of the executive branch.
The left, which briefly appeared concerned about the excesses of modern presidential power when Trump first took office, appear to have forgotten it already. Prevented by their own statist priors and an anti-constitutionalist disposition from ever making a principled stand against the concentrated exercise of power in the executive, the left cannot turn down the prospect of the next Democratic president, whoever that may be, getting to exercise vast executive powers in retaliation for their anger at Trump and his supporters. Thus, a vicious cycle emerges in which unprincipled elements on both sides–progressives and populists–choose retribution over disarmament and the safer moderation of constitutional government and divided powers.
To his credit, however, President Trump does appear to have taken his deregulatory pledges seriously and is at least stemming the tide of new regulations such that the net increase is approximately zero. That surely sounds tamer than the administration’s characterization of events, but even put more mildly it is not insignificant. Regulation is arguably the greatest obstacle to economic prosperity in the United States today–more so than taxes–and America is a much poorer nation than it would otherwise be were it not for the abomination that is the federal regulatory code. Much more needs to be done, but his negation of existing regulations and the obstacles that his administration has placed in the way of new regulations deserve our high praise. Indeed, our biggest grievance with the administration’s approach on this issue has been its refusal to tout it publicly. Allowing the news cycle to be continually dominated by baseless allegations of Trump colluding with Russia, the administration has been uncharacteristically quiet in its deregulatory mission. Poll numbers on regulation suggest that Americans currently hold a marginally positive view of regulation, but rather than bow to that trend (which is only recent and far from historically stable), Trump could stand to take a note from Reagan, who loudly touted even those policy points on which the left had claimed a high ground, met them in the public square, and put the debate before the American public, shaking faith in the leftist orthodoxy of government as a source of unfailing good. Here again, Republicans would do well to adopt an aggressive position rather than perpetually hide their defenses of capitalism in a shroud of mystery and, when discovered, apology.
And yet, even when Republicans do choose a more rational course, they are perpetually tripping upon their own shoelaces. Consider, for example, what is perhaps the Republicans’ most significant legislative achievement in the first year of Trump’s term: tax cuts. Albeit, the final plan fell well short of Republicans’ campaign promises to “simplify” the tax code. The code itself remains essentially intact. Our current system of convoluted deductions, credits, and exemptions is still unnavigable to all but those capable of hiring a tax attorney, and the vast majority of cuts are temporary–set to expire within the next decade.
Nevertheless, the bill does cut the taxes of approximately 80% of Americans, and reduces the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%. Permanent or not, that translates to real and substantial savings in both the short and long terms. And corporations have already begun to reinvest their anticipated tax savings in a variety of ways, most notably in their labor forces in the form of bonuses and increased minimum wages. It also eliminates the individual mandate for ObamaCare, making that law’s continued existence all the more precarious. By all accounts, the bill should not only be a victory for the Republicans–it should be a popular one as well.
Instead, the bill has been a PR nightmare for Republicans. Polls reveal that a plurality of Americans believed that the tax bill was a bad idea, and only 17% only believed their taxes would be cuts. Worse, Democrats have successfully led many to believe that the bill would raise their taxes when it does not for all but few. (The bill does, in fact, raise taxes for some individuals based upon various changes to tax deductions. First, individuals will see a tax increase if they make $20,000 to $50,000 annually and deduct approximately 30% or more of their income—a ludicrous scenario that is typically resolved favorably through the new standard deduction. Second, individuals who make $225,000 or more who itemize between approximately 20% and 30% will see a small increase, generally of no more than $200.)
In all, however, the debate over Republican tax cuts is yet another indicator of the still considerable power of class warfare and the ability of the left to stoke latent resentment and animosity among Americans. No serious claim appears to have ever been made that taxes for lower income Americans would rise, nor have Democrats campaigned for lower taxes across the board; rather, the animosity appears to stem primarily from anger that any higher earning Americans might pay less. A case can and has been made that the tax cuts might worsen the deficit, and a case can certainly be made that as deplorable as ObamaCare is, eliminating one third of it without dispensing with the other two-thirds could spell a fiscal nightmare in the future as its costs long outlive the funding mechanism that was meant to support them (not that the individual mandate would have succeeded in paying for it, mind you).
To believe, however, that Democratic politicians are suddenly deficit hawks concerned about our fiscal future is laughable, and the discrepancy is better resolved by cutting federal spending—a much-needed second step—than by keeping taxes high. In the end, the root of Democratic opposition to tax cuts appears to be based in appealing to a culture of envy in which the standard for qualifying as a member of “the rich” is continually lowered, appeals to paying a “fair share” become a fungible standard that can be altered according to a majority’s momentary whim, and all economic ailment is blamed on politicians not having access to ever greater percentages of other people’s money. Tragically, these falsities and underhanded attacks go unanswered by a GOP so much of which lacks the moral belief in capitalism that is required to make a principled defense of lower taxes and greater economic freedom.
Another issue which has seen Americans greatly divided in the past year has been the rash of public shootings and acts of violence perpetrated for various reasons unrelated to terrorist organizations or foreign conflicts but nonetheless tragic in their results. On January 6th, a shooting at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida saw five victims killed, another six injured by the shooting, and thirty-six injured in trying to flee. Subsequent profiles of the shooter showed him to have been mentally ill and traumatized by service in the Iraq War. On June 14th, Republican Rep. Steve Scalise was shot at a congressional baseball game at which other notable legislators and staff were present. The perpetrator was killed on the scene, but evidence later revealed him to have political motives, being a devout progressive who was consumed with hatred for the Republican legislators he came to target. On October 1st, Nevada man Stephen Paddock opened fire from the window of his hotel room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino into a crowd of 22,000 concert goers, killing 58 and injuring 546. Paddock had used the wealth he had acquired in the real estate industry to fund his hotel stay and a small armory of weapons that he had snuck into the hotel over the preceding days. To date, his motives are unclear, and the FBI reports that it may be ten months before a full report is released, though at present there is no evidence of connection to organized terror or any political cause. On November 5th, a gunman opened fire into a small baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26 and injuring at least 20, before dying by shots both self-inflicted and from a witness who had taken pursuit of his vehicle. Complaints and at least one lawsuit have been raised against the Pentagon for failing to report the gunman’s prior criminal conviction for domestic abuse, reportage of which would have prevented him from purchasing the weapons used in the assault.
In all of these cases, a push for further gun control laws has been renewed, fuelled by careless and sometimes flatly false statistics. Granted: indiscriminate allowance of gun ownership is an untenable extreme, but that is far from the circumstance that currently prevails in the United States, and states and cities with the strictest gun control laws often see the highest prevalence of gun violence. Further, for perpetrators such as those guilty of the crimes above—law abiding citizens, sometimes former military—no screening standards that do not already exist, if well applied, would appear to have made a difference in their cases. If government agencies fail to do their jobs and report criminal records, then that is a government failure that should be addressed, but in the continued cries for greater and greater gun controls, its advocates approach the point of simply wanting to do away with the Second Amendment–an unrealistic prospect in the United States and one which fails to balance the costs against the benefits of added safety which gun ownership by millions of other law abiding citizens provides every year.
The violence of the past year is not limited to gun violence, after all. In August, a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which brought together members of various populist and white nationalist groups ended tragically when a man affiliated with one such group drove a car through a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring nineteen. The attack has been labeled an act of domestic terrorism and pursued by investigators as a hate crime. Democratic pundits have been given easy material in such occasions to claim that there is a rising tide of racial identity politics and animosity stemming from white, populist elements whom they would love to tie to Republicans at large in order to cinch their years-long case that all politics to the right of center is driven by the desire to oppress the poor and champion a white racial agenda. Even now, though, it is sufficiently apparent that the elements represented at Charlottesville were outliers too far from any meaningful center of political power to be treated by even left-leaning news outlets as legitimately representative of the American right. They are small in number and widely condemned as pariahs by every Republican office holder who aspires to a political future.
What’s more: to those pundits on the left who feign surprise at newly inflamed populist, white nationalist factions causing a stir, it is difficult to miss the symmetry of the hatred and bigotry displayed by these groups and the rising racial rhetoric employed by the left over the last decade. This is not to in any way pardon the vile nature of the populists’ hatred but to recognize its counterpart in the more polished, genteel preaching of racial division that has come to pervade leftist intellectualism, journalism, and academia and which has, in turn, been adopted by the Democratic Party as a repeatedly failed but long-held messaging strategy. The adoption of Marxist ideas of class consciousness (in modern terminology, “privilege”) has mutated into a plethora of claims that every white person is inherently racist, every male sexist, and everyone above a certain income level an oppressor who scarcely adds to society but parasitically mooches off of those who deserve it based on need. It is striking and tragic how similar these ostensibly radically opposed groups—populists and progressives—are in their acceptance of determinism and primal group identities, along with their rejection of the only system which offers equality of individual rights to people of all identities: capitalism. Tragic though it is to be proven right on this point, we are vindicated in having claimed over the years (see here, here, and here for a few instances) that the persistent use of identity politics by the left would provoke a backlash. Still, a frank assessment requires us to remain numerate in our appraisal of the state of the culture, and the truth is that aside from these horrid outliers, the United States remains one of the most pluralistic and accepting countries on Earth.
One would think (without vindication) that the Democratic Party would tire of scandal soon and wish to return to substantive policy debate. It has certainly seen its own share of scandal in the wake of the Clinton campaign. The court date for former DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s former IT aide Imran Awan has been postponed, prolonging the politically damaging trial over Awan’s alleged illegal storage of classified Democratic Congressional documents. Wasserman Schultz has been mired in it for her choice to keep Awan on as an aide despite knowing that he was under criminal investigation, worsening Democrats’ already damaged reputation for the handling of classified documents after the Clinton email scandal of last year. Wasserman Schultz’s replacement, interim DNC chair Donna Brazile, later sent shockwaves through the party by revealing a sordid account of how Hillary Clinton secured the Democratic nomination, involving a financially desperate DNC, the Clinton donor network, and a system which was rigged from the start against other Democratic presidential hopefuls.
In a broader sense, though, the Democratic Party is stuck in the past because it lacks a vision for the future that does not involve further interest group warfare and unapologetic socialism on the order of Bernie Sanders–neither of which hold any appeal for most independents or even for Democrats over 40 who came about in the Clinton era. We have written many times of their inability over the last decade to produce new, presidential-quality talent in a manner on par with Republicans, and little appears to be changing. When Democrats go to fill a Clinton-less debate stage in 2020, it will be largely with a cast of either party elders past their prime or relative unknowns. With the Clinton’s and Obama’s now seemingly gone from public life, their shadows still loom large, and Democrats can only begin to craft an idea of what they will offer when they escape the long shadows of the past. When they do, they will need to have moved back toward the center on many issues if they are to convince American voters that their offering is preferable to four more years of Trump. The Clinton-Trump race may have been a narrow one, but Sanders-Trump would not have been, and few Americans will be satisfied by the increasing number of gender neutral bathrooms when their incomes are stagnating and the cost of healthcare skyrockets.
Indeed, far short of that, a strong argument can be made that all that Trump and the GOP have to do to win in 2018 is articulate—loudly, not subtly, as he has with the deregulatory program—all of the reforms that they have achieved in reducing taxes, stemming the tide of regulations, largely destroying ISIS, etc.. Americans respond to positive, goal-oriented leadership, and in 2017 the news cycle has been dominated by petty scandal. Too much has been made of special elections in 2017 and their predictive value as to what will happen in the 2018 midterms. That a Democrat won in Alabama, where Republicans hold a supermajority in the state legislature and all other statewide offices are held by Republicans, has far more to do with voters’ responses to the personal revelations made about the Republican candidate, Roy Moore, than with any anti-Trump sentiment in a state that went heavily for the president in 2016. That a Democrat even came remotely close to winning in Georgia’s sixth district, a historically Republican district, has much more to do with the obsessive attempt by Democrats nationwide to attach symbolic significance to Democrat Jon Ossoff’s initial success and to the record-setting $50 million spent on the race (mostly by Democrats) than it ever did with a groundswell of animosity towards Trump. That 95% of Ossoff’s funding came from out of state should dispel the myth that a historically Republican district was energized by the prospect of electing a Democrat. And that the Virginia gubernatorial race should go for Democrat Ralph Northam is not evidence of a leftward trend in a state that already had a Democratic governor. If anything, conjectures to the contrary are evidence of Democrats’ desperation for any evidence of a change to come. This is not to suggest that Republicans are in the clear, however. The GOP, still learning how to balance Trump’s populism against its own policies and vision, appears to have no well articulated offensive strategy, leaving them in a more precarious position than they should be in a year of moderate legislative accomplishments. If they are to retain their current majorities, they will need to offer a positive domestic agenda and a sense of stable prosperity to convince Americans that they deserve to retain the Senate.
In the international sphere, perhaps the biggest news story of the year has proven to be no story at all. Left-leaning media’s preoccupation with trying to tie President Trump to any collusion with Russia against the American people or—more specifically—alleging that the 2016 election results were errant because of some tampering facilitated by the Russian government and its intelligence operatives has become nearly self-destructive to journalists’ and news outlets’ reputations. Glen Greenwald at The Intercept has impressively detailed and rightly criticized the innumerable cases of major U.S. media outlets having to retract false Trump/Russia stories.
As Greenwald puts it, if journalists claim to be concerned with such allegations, then getting the story correct should be their first concern. That it is not is likely the result of several interrelated factors: (i) confirmation bias leading them to accept the slightest suggestion of what they already want to believe is true; (ii) the high potential payoff to being the first journalist(s) to uncover hard evidence of such a scandal, including canonization by the left as the next Woodward and Bernstein; and (iii) the left’s philosophical handicap (discussed here) when it comes to accepting electoral loss.
In a stroke of irony, the campaign to tie Trump to Russia has resulted in an ever-growing stream of bad press and revelations for Democrats and the president’s opponents. James Comey’s testimony, which raised the allegations to a new fervor in June, confirmed that there was no tampering with U.S. ballot systems in the 2016 election, that no obstruction of justice was committed by the president, that Comey himself leaked information on the issue to a friend at Columbia Law School, and that he was directed by Attorney General Loretta Lynch to use language consonant with the messaging strategy of the Clinton campaign when discussing the FBI investigation of her mishandling of classified materials. Ultimately, however, pursuit of the issue led to revelations that the much-hyped “Russia dossier” on President Trump was produced by a Washington, D.C., law firm, Fusion GPS, funded by both the Clinton campaign and the DNC; that a senior DOJ official concealed meetings with the authors of the dossier; and that that official’s wife worked for Fusion GPS at the time the dossier was produced–a fact which he withheld from his colleagues in the DOJ. That official has since been demoted, but the lasting image is of the lines between partisan politics and federal bureaucracy being further blurred by a bitter Clinton network and its loyal adherents spread through many organs of government. To date, the only Russia-related charges are those for conspiracy and money laundering against one-time Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, though Manafort was gone from the Trump organization long before the president took office. The only further concrete allegations still unresolved center upon a meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer in June 2016, in which the lawyer had promised to reveal damaging information about the Clinton campaign but, according to Trump Jr., did not. Further revelations may emerge in the future, but for the moment it seems that the Trump/Russia scandal is mostly a political mudpit meant to slow and dirty the Trump administration but in which major media outlets have consistently fallen on their faces.
That the threat of an increasingly assertive Russia is being used as a partisan ploy is shameful, as it continues to blur the line between cheap scandal and valid concerns. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a cause for concern, and in recent years it has demonstrated a renewed vigor in its pursuit of the same sorts of interventionism which characterized Soviet foreign policy for generations. As conflict and instability in Ukraine continue, peace talks in Syria recur then fail again, and unsavory ties between Russia and the Iranian state have grown tighter, Russia’s international presence becomes both more formidable and more sinister. Its role in the Syrian peace talks has been destructive, aimed at bolstering the Assad regime by sowing distrust and squandering negotiations in order to preserve the status quo, in which the Assad government holds the upper hand.
What exactly Russia stands to gain from the Assad regime once it is preserved, however, is less clear. A weak and divided ally who brings little to the table and has less in oil and valuable trade than many neighboring Arab countries would not seem to be a cause worthy of significant investment by Russia. Russia, however, lacks the broad network of close alliances that it once had across multiple continents, so the marginal value of a friend may simply be greater than it once was. Still, one wonders whether Russia’s tampering in Syria will be one more entry on the long list of interventions by both it and the United States since the onset of the Cold War that were worth far less in retrospect than they seemed at the time.
In the final weeks of the year, Putin has offered to host peace talks between the United States and North Korea. The apparent futility of negotiating with the North Korean government and Russia’s obvious desire to masquerade itself as a well meaning power center suggest that the arrangement may cost more than it is worth. Nonetheless, something must be done to address an increasingly aggressive Kim Jong-Un, whose ever more frequent and grandiose nuclear missile tests cannot be ignored. More likely the result of internal weakening, desperation, and the need to assert itself, the tests and threats against both East Asian nations and the west coast of the United States have escalated this year. As the situation grows more serious, it is time to hold China to account for these acts of aggression. It is China which keeps North Korea afloat and has for years, China which provides it with the resources to survive while the North Korean state diverts what little its country has into producing missiles while its people starve, and China which stands behind it in its defense, making all of this possible. China knows that without its support, North Korea would quickly perish, and China detests the thought of a prosperous, much freer country on its northern border to which its citizens might wish to flee and which would every day make its political and economic system look third-rate by comparison. In light of the horrendous murder of American citizen Otto Warmbier this year and the revelation in the last week of the year that China has been covertly selling fuel to North Korea, the time is ripe for the Trump administration to tactfully but forcefully condemn China’s sponsorship of the most horrendous dictatorship in the world and to tie Chinese politicians to the continued enslavement of the North Korean people.
Closer to home, in addition to domestic attacks against U.S. politicians such as the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise and the Las Vegas attack, there is the added concern of ISIS- and terrorism-related shootings and acts of indiscriminate violence against civilians which have been rampant in the past year. In March, an Islamic fundamentalist in London deliberately drove onto a sidewalk in the Westminster area near Parliament, wounding over fifty people and killing four before running away and stabbing an unarmed police office. In May, an attack at an Ariana Grande concert targeted attendees, many of them parents and their daughters, who had come to see the pop star perform. In August, another attack saw a young man drive a van onto a sidewalk in Barcelona, killing 14 and injuring 130. Two attacks in New York were also linked to or at least claimed by ISIS: one in October again saw a truck run onto a pedestrian path, killing eight and injuring eleven, and a failed suicide bombing in December against the subway connecting Port Authority to Times Square injured four, killing none. England, Spain, and New York all appear to remain now, as they have been since the beginning of the war on terror, the primary targets for Islamic fundamentalists looking to attack the West.
The escalation of ISIS or ISIS-inspired attacks against the West, however, betrays the faltering position of ISIS in its home territory. As a result of escalated airstrikes and counterinsurgency efforts by both the U.S. and Russia, ISIS’s numbers are nearly depleted, by some reports down to fewer than 10,000 troops, with sixty to seventy thousand reported to have been killed as of July. Exact numbers are difficult to ascertain. Similarly difficult to discern are U.S. troop numbers in the region. The extent to which the U.S. has militarily committed to achieve these results is a fact which has been held close to the vest by U.S. military officials and the Trump administration, but estimates suggest it to be greater than 5,000 and less than a once-reported figure of 7,400.
Difficult though it is to argue with the success of the campaign, unfortunately little has changed in the past sixteen years as regards the U.S. government’s respect for legal and constitutional process in entering or escalating military conflicts. If legislators have been kept abreast of the executive branch’s escalations, the public has been largely kept at arm’s length and no vote on a formal measure has been held committing Congress to involvement in the conflict. Though statements (most notably by Sen. Rand Paul) were heard this year insisting that Congress play a role in overseeing the conflict, most legislators remain satisfied to take a backseat role in yet another military engagement in which U.S. soldiers’ lives are at risk.
Overall, the Trump foreign policy in the first year has been a case of mostly good hits and better misses. His withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accords is commendable, and the resentment with which European leaders responded spoke volumes in support of his major charge against the agreement: that it was a net transfer from the U.S. to their states, one for which the U.S. taxpayer would shoulder the burden while other countries and their lobbied interests reaped much of the benefits. His recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is commendable for its greater meaning as a gesture of support for Israel, but the concrete significance of it will only be realized in time. The response of the United Nations–condemning the U.S. and Israel for the gesture and declaring it null and void–revealed yet again how anti-Israeli that body is, but the only tangible repercussion from that vote will work against them, as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced a reduction of more than $200 million in the U.S. commitment to the U.N. in the coming year. An even greater downward revision should be considered going forward, but it is an excellent start towards a policy of the U.S. making use of the full weight that it carries in that body and the U.N.’s dependence upon it. It has too long footed the majority of the bill while treating the rest of the body as equal contributors, and a departure from that demurred stature is a welcome improvement.
There has been as much to find agreeable in what he has not achieved as what he has. He has not seriously pursued the enactment of new tariffs nor pursued a destructive trade war against China, as he promised during his campaign. This is likely attributable to more sensible advisors around him who have been less than compliant with his reportedly angry demands in the Oval Office: “Bring me some tariffs!” The administration’s actions to restrict legal immigration and finance a wasteful border wall project are objectionable, but they have been pursued far less avidly than Trump promised. The border wall project, according to inside chatter early this year, is likely to be initiated but never finished, making it at least less of a fiscal waste than it otherwise could have been. Unfortunately, he has slowed the recognition of Cuba initiated by the Obama administration–one of its more commendable decisions–at a time when the future of our communist neighbor to the south is up in the air. Cuban communism is likely to die with the Castro brothers, but what sort of government will follow there is undetermined. Though embargoes and boycotts have their place and are sometimes an optimal strategy, at this late hour, U.S. policymakers would be in a better position to positively influence the future of Cuba through free trade and positive engagement than through continued isolation.
More broadly, the conflict between Trump’s arbitrary and unsupported belief in trade protectionism comes to blows not only with reality and basic economics but with the GOP’s historical positions on the issue as well. Campaign year pandering aside, the GOP has generally been better in recognizing the consistency between a belief in free markets within a country and the freedom of trade between them. Trump, as a pragmatist who vacillates in his support for economic freedom, either does not see or cannot respect the correlation between them. As a result, he boasts of U.S. withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership, decrying it as a “bad deal”, to the acclaim of supporters most of whom know even less of it than he does. That is not to pronounce the partnership to be perfect by far, nor complete, nor without wasteful rent seeking embedded in its many pages, but rather to say that it is not those deplorable traits but the element of freedom in it which they denounce–the essence of capitalism. In the struggle between Trumpism and the core of the GOP (which is far from perfect to start with), while the greater battle is always a philosophical one, perhaps the most important policy plank which must be denied entry into the party’s platform is that of wasteful, destructive, growth-killing, economically senseless protectionism that makes each generation poorer than it would have been in the name of special and well lobbied interests.
Lastly as regards issues abroad, in the final days of the year, a rash of protests has broken out in seven major cities across Iran, all denouncing the Islamic Republic; its diversion of resources to a costly interventionist policy waged through Hezbollah, Hamas, and the IRGC in Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere; dire economic circumstances at home; and—most importantly—theocratic rule. The protests are reportedly more widespread and more vehement than those of 2009 and 1999, challenging the fundamental legitimacy of the clerics who have ruled Iran since 1979. Chants are heard in the streets of “Death to dictator[s]!” and “We don’t want to be ruled by the clerics anymore!” Women have been seen protesting in the streets unveiled, and Iranian police have announced that they will no longer be enforcing dress code violations against them.
Sadly, with ten killed in the protests and hundreds already jailed, American media coverage of the protests has been paltry or misleading, with most major networks acting as though it were not happening. A combined result of the negative implications which these developments hold for the Obama legacy, there being no discernible negative angle to the story attached to President Trump (who has responded with careful diplomacy), and the anti-statist nature of the protests, major networks have treated it as a third-rate story. CNN covered pro-government counter-protests and gave throwaway mention to the existence of much larger anti-government rallies to which they were responding; NPR listed it as a minor story below stories on China, North Korea, and an article on dieting; and it has been largely ignored by the Washington Post. It is yet another tragic instance of the American media seeming to prefer the preservation and romanticization of statism abroad, as it has in Cuba and Venezuela, as the people of those countries struggle to be free.
The media aside, developments are new and their fate uncertain, but we watch with anticipation and the hope that the Iranian people can effect meaningful change and bring an end to the theocratic state which has long cursed what was once the most industrious and rapidly advancing culture in the Middle East. As for the U.S. response, President Trump’s comments thus far have been commendable, openly supporting peaceful political change in Iran, but the important element going forward is that diplomats convey support and encouragement of liberal, pro-market reforms based on the protection of Iranians individual rights. Only through such positive engagement can we successfully navigate the Scylla of failed revolutionary change on the one hand (e.g. the 2009 protests, in which President Obama sat silently by) and the Charybdis of a resurgent Iranian nationalism which may be friendlier to its own people but will not result in peaceful and constructive relations between Iran the West. For now, all that we can do is wish the people of Iran peace and freedom to come.
Culture Beyond Politics
It is always difficult to discern the often slow progress of cultural change and its direction on an annual basis. Political change is slow, but the transformation of culture can move like molasses by comparison. Thus, any claims based on a year’s evidence must be made with caution. America in 2017, however, appears to evince a rising philosophical tension between two trends. On the one hand there is the postmodernism which now animates leftist ideology in politics and much of academia, rejecting objective truth in favor of fluid, subjectivist narratives. On the other: the pragmatism to which many conservatives have resorted, dispensing with rigid principles and rejecting ideology in favor of a reified middle in which truth is always assumed to lie. Orphaned are Americans of more traditional values, caught in the middle and unrepresented by politicians who fail to stand by principle and a media (both news and entertainment) that would rather try to shape their demands than meet them—that would rather realize the preferred narrative than pursue, above all things, the truth.
As social media has become an increasingly central part of national political debates, it is easy to view Americans as becoming ever more polarized along both political and cultural dimensions, but the descriptiveness of that appraisal is unclear. It remains entirely possible that the appearance of polarization is merely the revelation of a diversity of opinions which already existed and a realization by many Americans that there are more people of contrary views in our culture than their daily environments offline had led them to believe. Still, with a president whose communications are as often as not run through Twitter, social media has risen to even greater prominence in the last two years, and there are as many costs to this as benefits. The developments in Iran have come largely through social media, making the world aware of important stories from within a closed media environment, but in the West and the United States in particular, there has seemed to be a continued erosion of goodwill and constructive discussion, with grandstanding and public shaming almost invariably preferred to decency.
This is not foremost a result of the technology of social media, however. Surely the impersonal nature of it, the ease with which a stranger’s whole person is equated with the statement that they are making at a given moment and condemned, and the accelerant of having an audience for whom we must perform can altogether destroy any civility in political debate. However, at root, such acrimony and puritanical condemnation is a manifestation of a society with an eroding moral center and a weakening hold on any objective values. As a result, individuals substitute popular agreement and praise—likes and retweets—for an independent sense of right and wrong. Truth is relegated to subordinate consideration next to the praise of the masses. False claims can be spread, reaping the author widespread attention and praise, then retracted in silence. All throughout, there is the patina of righteousness and a rush to judgment without any real concern for truth or justice.
More broadly, it is a symptom of moralism serving as a popular substitute for true morality. Moralism, which rushes to judgment and seeks to brand all things as either good or evil without care, uses the appearance of morality and the wrath of a mob as weapons of power over others. Its disregard for truth and justice are palpable, but most important for us to recognize is the absence of any true moral conscience at the root of this modern puritanism. It is a bitter imitation of conscience wielded by subjectivists who do not believe in any objectively derivable moral principles but who crave superiority–not to nature or life’s obstacles, but to other men.
Consider the violent outbursts and agitation of thugs groups such as Antifa, who destroy property and threaten the public at the prospect of encountering anyone of a different ideology (as in the case of Ben Shapiro’s and Milo Yiannapoulos’ visits to Berkeley this year), behaving like Brown Shirts while claiming falsely to oppose fascism. Consider the more timid, bureaucratic sheep in sheep’s clothing who sit on the boards and in the administrative offices of universities and police intellectual debate, such as those who at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University this year put an instructor under review and interrogated her for the crime of playing two videos demonstrating different sides of debates over transexualism and leaving it to students to decide for themselves what they believed.
These are the hallmarks of intellectual insecurity, frailty, and inefficacy at work in the postmodernist culture of the left. Rejecting truth, they grant degrees in adherence to inherited doctrine. Foregoing rigorous instruction, they demand rigorous allegiance. Placing no value on individuality, they stifle it and promote conformity. Abandoning moral principles, they devolve into indiscriminate condemnation masquerading as principle. One need only look at their ouput–which Reason has aptly called “The Fragile Generation” to recognize their fundamental character. It is an inherently weak and unstable set of doctrines which survive for one reason alone: the inability and/or unwillingness of so many who are not of those beliefs to challenge them. The moral and intellectual compromises of so much of the political right and center grant more to such falsities and zealots of inanity than they could ever achieve for themselves, and they will continue to grow and corrode our intellectual culture until they are answered with firm, objective epistemological and moral principles.
In writing this review each year, we invariably come upon a few surprise realizations: each year is far more unique than one might expect on a cursory glance; there is always much more to discuss than we believed before sitting down to write (and much more than we can address!); and the progress of our nation and our culture, for better or worse, in one direction or another, is constant. We are never idle but always moving forward–toward what, we do not always know, and anticipating as much is always one of our hopes in writing it. Still, when we look back over the events of the years past, this one being no exception, we realize how little we could have ever predicted beforehand and how great a task it is simply trying to condense these developments into something even somewhat digestible. Thus, we limit ourselves to the latter of these tasks in an effort to make sense of many varied and disparate developments, tying them together like the planks and threads of a makeshift raft as we drift forward into the unknown. As we do, we thank you for reading and we hope that you will join us in the next year as we strive to offer meaningful commentary and analysis of culture and politics from a rational perspective, promoting freedom and capitalism the world over.
From all of us at The Mendenhall,
Happy New Year!