Americans believe in meritocracy in principle. Polls show that significant majorities — between 67% and 70% since Gallup began asking the question in 2003 — believe that, when it comes to university admissions, “applicants should be admitted solely on the basis of merit”.
The most successful Broadway show in living memory, Hamilton, is an exuberant celebration of a self-made man — the first US Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, who was born into poverty (“a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman”) but indefatigably read, wrote and fought his way to the top.
Unlike his wealthy rival Aaron Burr, Hamilton isn’t admitted to Princeton and has to settle for King’s College (now Columbia University). It doesn’t matter. Hamilton gets “a lot farther by working a lot harder / By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter”. Nothing can stop this young, scrappy, hungry prodigy from “rising up”.
Yet in practice Americans don’t believe in meritocracy at all. Plenty of wealthy Americans have no problem with the idea of hereditary privilege, as long as they are spared the social obligations of traditional aristocracy. At the same time many educated Americans support and practise systematic racial discrimination — even if they justify today’s “affirmative action” as a form of redress for past discrimination. The result is the corrupt and inequitable system of undergraduate admissions at the elite universities.
Last week the Department of Justice accused 50 people in six states of a “racketeering conspiracy” to get patently undeserving candidates into colleges including Yale, Stanford, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Southern California (USC). Among the parents charged were the actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, the fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli.
At the heart of the racket was William Singer, the founder of the “Edge College & Career Network”, also known as “the Key”. Wealthy parents paid Singer to help their talentless and/or idle offspring cheat on standardised tests or fake athletic prowess. He bribed test administrators and college coaches. He also falsified students’ family histories and biographies to take advantage of quotas for racial minorities.
“There is a front door of getting in [to college] where a student just does it on their own,” Singer explained in court last Tuesday, “and then there’s a back door where people go to institutional advancement and make large donations, but they’re not guaranteed in . . . I created a side door that guaranteed families to get in.”
Loughlin and her husband allegedly paid $500,000 (£380,000) to get their two daughters, Olivia and Isabella, accepted as recruits for the USC rowing team, even though neither had ever knowingly held an oar. If shamelessness were a varsity sport, Olivia would have deserved a full scholarship. A well-known social media “influencer”, who plugs fancy footwear and dental aligners on Instagram and YouTube, she had the gall to admit in a video that she was going to college solely for “game days, partying”, because “I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know”.
Welcome to the fake-it-ocracy. Remember, this side door came into existence because the back door of a fat donation — like the $2.5m paid by Jared Kushner’s father to Harvard — just isn’t 100% reliable.
It took me a while to figure the system out after I moved from British to American academia. At Cambridge and Oxford I had been directly involved in undergraduate admissions. I and my colleagues read the application forms, the sample essays and the answers to what remained of the old entrance examination. We spent long days interviewing the candidates.
The Oxbridge system has long been criticised for admitting too few pupils from state schools or ethnic minorities, but I did not regard my role as that of a social engineer. My goal was to pick the cleverest students, regardless of all other criteria, and my main preoccupation was to separate the truly bright from the well coached. I did not care if they could row or tap-dance. I wanted intelligence, because I would have to teach these people for three years and the last thing I wanted was to spend hours of my life with dunderheads.
Harvard was different. At first, naively, I couldn’t understand why a substantial proportion of my new students were there, as — to judge by their mid-term exam papers — they wouldn’t have stood a chance of an interview at Oxford, never mind a place. It was explained to me that a substantial chunk of undergraduates were “legacies” — there because their parents were alumni, especially generous alumni — and another chunk were the beneficiaries of affirmative action or athletics programmes. The admissions system was managed by professional administrators, not professors.
Later, when I saw evidence that Harvard and other colleges were discriminating against Asian applicants — whose share of the total undergraduate body ought to have been rising on the basis of their numbers and superior performance in standardised tests — I wrote an essay lamenting the decline of meritocracy in America.
This, too, was naive. For the reality is that meritocracy as an ideal is fatally flawed. Nepotism will always find a way through, no matter how tough the tests. There have been times when even I have been tempted to pull a string or improve an essay for my own children. Admirably, they have spurned such offers.
The social scientist Charles Murray has argued that a cognitive elite has emerged in America because smart women meet smart men at places such as Harvard, get married and have smart children. But if not everyone at Harvard is smart, the theory is weakened. There’s also the biological reality that smart parents don’t necessarily have smart children. Even if they do, parental wealth corrupts offspring, eroding their work ethic. Sooner or later, money starts to override merit. Outright racketeering is remarkable only because there are so many legal ways to get mediocre students into the Ivy League.
The law of unintended consequences is history’s only law. The more the admissions criteria to elite colleges have been distorted, the faster the ideology of “intersectionality” has spread across campuses, with highly disruptive results. Last week students at Sarah Lawrence College held an occupation to demand (among other things) that a professor, Samuel Abrams, have his position “reviewed” — by them. His crime? He wrote an article in The New York Times pointing out that university administrators are overwhelmingly liberal or progressive in their politics.
This is not to predict that Olivia Giannulli will go from fake to woke. But she would do well to consider it. The best form of protection from the social justice warriors is to become one. And, guys, just imagine all those new followers on Instagram!
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
If you’d told me 30 years ago America would be in another Cold War with another communist superpower by 2019, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had told me that, simultaneously, socialism would be the height of fashion with young Americans, I would have directed you to a psychiatrist.
But here we are. Three decades ago Francis Fukuyama published his seminal essay “The End of History?”, hailing the victory of liberal capitalism over all its ideological competitors, but especially over communism. The essay he needs to write today is “The Upend of History?”
In 2016 a Cold War between the United States and China seemed like the febrile fantasy of Steve Bannon and a few fringe academics. Even Donald Trump’s campaign threats to impose tariffs on Chinese goods struck me as a throwback to an earlier era. I remember patiently making the counterargument that the incoming Trump administration would be better served by improving relations with China and Russia and making the permanent members of the UN security council act like the five great powers after the Congress of Vienna — maintaining a global balance of power.
I had been reading too much Henry Kissinger. I should have listened more to Graham Allison, another Harvard-trained veteran of US national security policy. When he told me he was writing a book on the US-China relationship with the title Destined for War, I was incredulous. Chapeau, Graham. You were right.
“When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power,” Allison wrote, “alarm bells should sound: danger ahead. China and the United States are currently on a collision course . . . War between the US and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than currently recognised. Indeed, on the historical record, war is more likely than not.”
Since the publication of Destined for War two years ago, the world has gone his way. It’s as if Allison’s “Thucydides trap” — derived from the ancient Greek historian’s observation that war between Athens and Sparta was inevitable — has a magnetic force, drawing the US and China towards it.
“What made war inevitable,” wrote Thucydides, “was the growth of Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta.” In the space of barely a year, Americans have suddenly grown fearful of the growth of Chinese power. What was once the position of a few alarmists is the new orthodoxy in Washington, shared by Republicans and many Democrats, foreign policy wonks and technology nerds. We may not be destined for a hot war, but we certainly are on track for a cold one.
In the Cold War the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957 was the moment America woke up to the red menace. I’m not sure quite what the Chinese Sputnik moment was — maybe the publication last year of Kai-fu Li’s AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order.
China-bashing is no longer about unfair trade policies and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the Midwest. The trade war that Trump launched against China last year has morphed into a tech war over 5G networks, artificial intelligence, online payments and even quantum computing. Of course there’s an old-fashioned arms race going on as well, as China stocks up on missiles capable of sinking aircraft carriers. But that’s not what’s cool about the Second Cold War.
As in the First Cold War, the two superpowers are ideologically divided, with President Xi Jinping reasserting the importance of Marxism as the foundation of party ideology even as Trump insists: “America will never be a socialist country.” And, as in the First Cold War, both superpowers are seeking to project their economic power overseas.
So what are the big differences? First, China is now a match for America in terms of GDP, whereas the USSR never got close. Second, China and America are economically intertwined in what I once called “Chimerica”, whereas US-Soviet trade was minimal. Third, there are hundreds of thousands of Chinese students in America (between 350,000 and 400,000) and 2.3m Chinese immigrants (half of them naturalised), whereas the number of Soviet citizens in America was always tiny.
Is a new Cold War a bad thing? Not necessarily. It’s certainly preferable to our acquiescing in a Chinese world takeover. And the last Cold War was also characterised by massive investments in technology, which had all kinds of positive economic spin-offs.
The worst features of the last Cold War were the protracted and bloody proxy wars fought in places such as southeast Asia, Central America, southern Africa. Right now, there’s not much sign of that kind of thing happening again, though watch Venezuela, where the kleptocratic regime of Nicolas Maduro has long depended on Chinese cheques but Washington is now backing the opposition leader, Juan Guaido.
So what’s not to like? Well, one thing. It wasn’t inevitable that the West would win the last Cold War. And it’s far from clear that it’s going to win this one. China seems a more formidable antagonist than the Soviet Union was, demographically, economically and technologically. For many countries, including staunch US allies such as Australia, Beijing’s economic pull is hard to ignore.
But I am more worried by America’s enemies within, who are surely much more numerous than during the Cold War. I don’t mean the Chinese immigrants, though I fear that in a new Cold War they might have their loyalty called into question, like German-Americans and Japanese-Americans during the world wars. My concern is with those native-born Americans whose antipathy to Trump is leading them in increasingly strange directions.
The vogue for socialism among Democratic voters is one sign of the times. According to a recent Gallup poll, 57% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents view socialism positively, as against 47% who view capitalism positively.
The left-wing firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has done much to make socialism sexy on Capitol Hill this year. Even more disturbing, because it is much more subtle, is the way her fellow Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota, is making Islamism acceptable. Last week she and her allies won a significant victory by turning a resolution intended to condemn Omar’s recent anti-semitic remarks into one that also condemned “anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry against minorities” and deflected the blame for those who “weaponise hate” onto “white supremacists”.
Like her supporters on the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Omar knows attacking Israel and accusing its American supporters of dual loyalty is an easy way to draw progressives to the Islamist side. Funny how she has nothing to say about Beijing’s persecution of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority in Xinjiang province, hundreds of thousands of whom are being held in “vocational training centres ”. In the old Cold War such camps were called the gulag.
So what if we reran the Cold War and half the country sided with the enemy? It wouldn’t be the end of history. But it might be the end of liberty.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
In the entrance to the US Senate members’ dining room there’s an old menu from March 24, 1941. On the back — presumably to record a bet — seven senators wrote the dates when they thought their country would enter the Second World War. Theodore G Bilbo, a Democrat from Mississippi, thought “never”. So did D Worth Clark, one of the two senators from Idaho. Millard Tydings, of Maryland, hedged, guessing either July 14, 1941 “or 1961”. A fourth senator said September 17, 1945.
Aside from Tydings, only three of the seven predicted the nation would be at war before the end of the year, and not one of them got the month right. (They guessed July 24, August 24 and September 24, whereas the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was on December 7 and the German declaration of war on America on December 11.)
Now imagine a similar exercise in March 2019. On what date will Donald J Trump leave the office of president? If, as in 1941, the majority of your seven senators were Democrats, I would guess that at least three would predict January 20, 2021 — the day the constitution requires Trump to hand over the White House if he is defeated in the 2020 election. But I doubt they would all say that.
Senate Democrats are under instructions not to talk about impeaching Trump, but I am sure more than a handful think about it. So perhaps two out of seven would go for an earlier date, perhaps some time next year. But that would leave two pessimists. The first might say January 20, 2025, acknowledging that the president they love to hate could win a second term. The most pessimistic of them all, having read all those overwrought articles from two years ago about the coming Trump tyranny, might write “never”.
One great benefit of recording such political wagers is that, years later, they can remind historians that the familiar past they study was once the uncertain future. We all know the United States eventually joined the fight against Axis powers. But that did not seem inevitable to many Americans, even in March 1941. In the same way, no one should pretend to know for sure how long the Trump presidency will last.
True, last week was not a good one for Trump. For the many liberal journalists yearning to re-enact Watergate, Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House oversight committee on Wednesday was beyond thrilling. Back in June 1973 this was the role played by John Dean, Richard Nixon’s White House lawyer, who testified before Congress that the Watergate case was a “cancer growing on the presidency”.
In his opening statement Cohen called Trump a “racist”, a “conman” and a “cheat.” Cohen said that, well into the 2016 presidential campaign, he was working on Trump’s behalf on a big property project in Moscow, despite Trump’s repeated insistence he had no business dealings with Russia. And Cohen provided fresh testimony (but no compelling evidence) that Trump was in the know about the efforts of WikiLeaks and the Russians to release dirt about Hillary Clinton at key moments in the campaign.
Yet somehow Cohen’s appearance was more The Godfather or Goodfellas than All the President’s Men. “How many times,” asked Representative Jackie Speier, “did Mr Trump ask you to threaten an individual or entity on his behalf?”
“Quite a few times,” Cohen replied.
Speier: “Fifty times?”
Speier: “One-hundred times?”
Speier: “Two-hundred times?”
Speier: “Five-hundred times?”
Cohen: “Probably, over the 10 years.”
That’s Henry Hill from Goodfellas talking, not John Dean.
I met Cohen on one occasion only, in Trump Tower in the heady days of the post-election transition in December 2016. Future White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, whom I’d known for years, had invited me to pay a visit. It was a fascinating afternoon. I met Trump’s pick for national security adviser, General Michael Flynn, who struck me as disciplined but dim. I met the soon-to-be chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who struck me as just the opposite.
But it was Cohen who convinced me that I should maintain a healthy distance of several thousand miles from the administration that was being formed. The way he talked strongly suggested that, in his eyes, the federal government was a chain of casinos the Trump Organisation had unexpectedly acquired at a bargain-basement price.
Sure enough, it turns out that Cohen’s job was indeed to play the mobster on Trump’s behalf. But what we heard last week was a litany of low crimes and misdeeds predating the president’s inauguration, not the “high crimes and misdemeanours” in office that article 2 of the US constitution says are grounds for impeachment. In the words of Alexander Hamilton, the founding fathers had in mind “offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust”.
So long as the president’s party has the upper hand in the Senate, and so long as his approval rating does not collapse — as Nixon’s did in the course of the Watergate hearings — any move to impeach Trump is going to fail and might even backfire on the Democrats, as impeaching Bill Clinton backfired on the Republicans in the 1990s. Reality check: Trump’s job approval number is currently 44%, exactly what it was at the start of his presidency and substantially above the low (37%) of December 2017. By the time Nixon was forced to resign, his approval was down to 24%.
In any case, three things are going Trump’s way right now. First, the economy. Growth last year came in at just under 3%, and the Federal Reserve’s January decision to stop raising interest rates should keep the show on the road into 2020. Second, a rising proportion of voters seem to like Trump’s tough line on China, which is why he should not prematurely strike a trade deal with Xi Jinping when the two meet later this month. Foreign policy triumphs are politically worthless at this early stage of an election cycle; like Nixon in 1972, Trump needs to be the global dealmaker in the months when voters are making their minds up.
Finally, the leftward lurch of the Democrats continues and with it their desire to nominate a candidate who will appeal to young and minority voters. Try to imagine one of the frontrunners campaigning for the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and student debt forgiveness, only to find the news cycle dominated by Trump’s latest Asian summit, his Middle Eastern peace plan or the humanitarian disaster caused by socialism in Venezuela.
Watergate destroyed Nixon only after he had won one of the biggest landslides in American history. Trump’s scandals have come to light much sooner, a year and a half before he has to face the voters. What lies ahead for this most erratic of presidents? Write your guess on the back of the nearest lunch menu and file it for future reference. It will be as good as any senator’s.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Hate crimes happen. I don’t much like the term, but let’s accept it as modern shorthand for criminal acts, usually of violence, motivated by some form of prejudice, be it racial, religious, sexual or otherwise. Last Monday evening my friend Maajid Nawaz — founder of the anti-extremist organisation Quilliam and a presenter on LBC radio — was the victim of such a crime. As he stood outside the Soho Theatre in Dean Street, central London, a white man shouted abuse at him and punched him in the face.
In Maajid’s words: “The white male assailant called me a ‘f****** P***’ as he hit me in the face with maybe a signet ring & ran away like a coward. He took nothing. He was just a racist.” The attacker’s ring (or it may have been a key) left an ugly gash in my friend’s forehead. The assault occurred after Maajid challenged the man for mocking an Asian family because “they weren’t English”. There were several witnesses.
I am sure more than one politician must have condemned the attack. However, the only quotation I have found is from the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, who described it as “shocking”.
At the end of last month another hate crime was reported. The victim was the gay African-American actor Justin (“Jussie”) Smollett, who claimed that he had been attacked in Chicago’s Streeterville area by two white men in balaclavas, who told him, “This is Maga [Make America great again] country.” They poured bleach on him and put a noose around his neck. The actor told police that he had fought them off.
This being America, rather more politicians were ready to express their outrage over this abhorrent hate crime. The Democratic senators and would-be presidential candidates Cory Booker and Kamala Harris denounced it as an “attempted modern-day lynching”. Harris tweeted that Smollett was “one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I know. I’m praying for his quick recovery . . . No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or the colour of their skin. We must confront this hate.”
Even Donald Trump felt obliged to condemn the attack. “I can tell you that it’s horrible,” he told reporters. “It doesn’t get worse.”
The only hitch is that this particular hate crime appears to have been staged by Smollett with the help of two brothers of Nigerian descent, one of whom appeared as an extra in Empire, the television series in which Smollett appears. Last week Chicago police sources said they had evidence that Smollett had paid the brothers $3,500 (£2,700) to stage the attack and that they had bought the rope found around Smollett’s neck at a hardware shop the weekend before the “attack”. On Wednesday Smollett was charged with filing a false police report.
It is certainly tempting to ridicule Jussie Smollett and the politicians and media folk who too readily swallowed his story. The best line came from Titania McGrath, a spoof social justice warrior whose Twitter account mercilessly mocks “woke” culture: “It is absolutely *essential* that we believe Jussie Smollett,” she tweeted. “If we don’t, other people who haven’t been attacked might not have the courage to come forward.”
Yet there is something more serious going on here. Smollett’s fraud on the public might have gone undetected had it not been for the tireless work of the Portland-based journalist Andy Ngo, who smelt a rat from the outset. In a mindblowing Twitter thread, Ngo has listed more than 30 fake hate crimes from the past two years.
For example, at about the time of the 2016 election, a Muslim student at Louisiana University claimed that two white Trump supporters, one wearing a Trump hat, had assaulted her, ripped off her hijab and robbed her. It was later revealed that she had made the episode up.
A month later a Muslim student at Baruch College alleged that she had been attacked by three white Trump supporters on the New York subway. According to her testimony they had called her a terrorist and, when she tried to move to the other end of the train carriage, had followed and tried to pull off her headscarf. She was subsequently charged with filing a false report and obstructing governmental administration.
What motivates someone to bear false witness in this way? As I said, there is no lack of real hate crime. According to the FBI more than 7,000 hate crime incidents were reported in the United States in 2017. In England and Wales, you may be surprised to learn, 94,000 offences were identified as hate crimes in the year starting April 2017. That doesn’t mean there is 13 times more violent bigotry in the UK than in America, any more than the lower figures for 2016 mean that there has been a “surge” in hate crime. The statistics reflect the reclassification of perennial acts of violence or vandalism as hate crimes — and the ways the public and police are encouraged to report them as such.
The problem is that there is not enough of the right kind of hate crime to validate the narrative, so cherished by the left, that Trump’s election unleashed a wave of white supremacist violence. Only half the known offenders in US hate crimes in 2017 were in fact white. Anti-semitic acts often turn out to be by non-white perpetrators, though you would need to read between the lines of The New York Times to work that out.
Under these awkward circumstances there is clearly an immense demand for tales of murderous Maga-hat-wearing rednecks roaming the streets of, er, Chicago and New York, conurbations not exactly famed for their large populations of such people. On Thursday Harris said she was “sad, frustrated and disappointed” by the news of Smollett’s arrest. “Disappointed” says it all.
This is the same senator who refused even to address a question to my wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, when she testified about Islamic extremism before the Senate committee on homeland security and governmental affairs in June 2017. Why? Because Islamic extremism is the wrong sort of extremism.
Democrats such as Harris want to talk only about white extremism — rather in the way that the phoney civil rights organisation the Southern Poverty Law Centre used to publish a list of “anti-Muslim extremists” but never a list of Muslim extremists. Ironically, Nawaz and my wife both appeared on that list — until he sued them.
Like the case of the Covington Catholic schoolboys — who were falsely accused of having insulted a Native American activist during a visit to Washington — the case of Jussie Smollett serves only to validate Trump’s insistence that it is liberals who propagate fake news. This is going to matter in 2020.
But the more profound effect of fake hate crimes is to impede us from facing the complex realities of hatred itself.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford. His most recent book, The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power, is published in paperback by Penguin