The profession of doom-monger has flourished since the earliest days of the United States. The founding fathers themselves knew enough European history to realise that the odds against the success of a republican form of government were high. Every republic tended to slide into tyranny, usually because the people threw in their lot with a demagogue.
“It is only to consult the history of nations,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1795, “to perceive that every country, at all times, is cursed by the existence of men who, actuated by an irregular ambition, scruple nothing which they imagine will contribute to their own advancement and importance.” In republics, the danger came from “fawning or turbulent demagogues, worshipping still the idol — power — wherever placed . . . and trafficking in the weaknesses, vices, frailties, or prejudices” of the people.
Most of my friends in academia believe this can be read as prophesying the rise of Donald Trump. In The People vs Democracy, Harvard’s Yascha Mounk argues that Trump’s populism is part of a worldwide backlash against liberal values. “Liberalism”, Mounk writes, is “now under concerted attack from the Trump administration, which has declared war on independent institutions such as the FBI and has used the president’s pulpit to bully ethnic and religious minorities”.
In a similar vein, my Stanford colleague Larry Diamond has written of a global “democratic recession”. In a New York Times column he warned that Trump’s appeal was especially strong to voters who want a “strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with elections or Congress”.
The Yale historian Timothy Snyder has a new book entitled The Road to Unfreedom, which makes the argument that Trump’s election (along with the result of the Brexit referendum) was just part of a vast Russian conspiracy to destroy democracy.
Paradoxically, a surprisingly large number of western intellectuals are attracted to China’s overtly authoritarian system of government. Tsinghua University’s Daniel Bell argues in his book The China Model that the Chinese Communist Party is a meritocracy that governs more competently than a democracy. My old friend Martin Jacques, the author of When China Rules the World (2009), portrays China’s economic management as far superior to the West’s.
Trump is undermining America. China’s rise is unstoppable. The inevitable inference is that when the United States and China collide, as history suggests is quite likely, Beijing will come out on top.
What if all this is wrong? Let’s start with the theory that democracy is suffering a global “recession”. Really? Twenty-one years ago Fareed Zakaria published an influential article, “The rise of illiberal democracy”. In it he cited statistics from Freedom House showing that 42% of the world’s countries were “free” (that is, true liberal democracies), 31% were “partly free” and 27% were “not free”. Fast-forward to the 2017 data. Free: 45%. Partly free: 30%. Not free: 25%.
This is not to deny that there have been setbacks for political and civil rights in many countries, which Freedom House is right to document. But I just don’t see compelling evidence for the rise of illiberalism predicted by Zakaria. Tell me all the “democracy in crisis” stories you like, but you’ll struggle to fit India into your theory — the most populous democracy in the world, where 79% of voters say they are satisfied with the way democracy is working. The riposte that “Narendra Modi, the prime minister, is no liberal” gives the game away. If democracy is in crisis just because liberals aren’t in power, then this debate is not serious.
If democracy is in a real crisis, why would millions of people rather live in democracies than in the unfree countries where they are born? According to a recent survey by Gallup, as many as 147m people would like to emigrate to America. The next most popular destinations were Germany, Canada, the UK and France. Only 1% of those surveyed said China was the land of their dreams.
True, the recent surge of immigration to democracies has generated a populist backlash. But, looking at 25 European countries for which I have data, I see populists in government in just six: Austria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Poland. I see only 11 populist parties with the support of more than 20% of voters. And I see only two countries — Hungary and Poland — where populists in power are meaningfully reducing individual liberty.
Might Trump prove to be the Viktor Orban of the US? No doubt the two men share many political preferences. But America isn’t Hungary. Precisely because the founders foresaw that a populist demagogue would one day become president, they created checks and balances in their constitution.
To put it simply, a key strength of the US system is that it’s decentralised. Sure, Trump is president and his party currently controls Congress, but the Republicans seem likely to lose their majority in the House of Representatives in November. Moreover, Republicans control only half of the nation’s 50 states. Just 14 of the mayors of the 50 biggest cities are Republicans.
Alexis de Tocqueville made the point in the 19th century that decentralised political systems were better protectors of individual liberties. Friedrich Hayek argued in the 20th century that centralised planned economies were less responsive to market signals. And modern network scientists observe that decentralised networks are more resilient than hierarchical ones. Why should these insights not be applicable to today’s rivalry between the United States and China?
The US system is self-correcting. If you hate Trump, you’re in good company. More than half (53%) of voters disapprove of the president. They get to vote against his party in November and against him in 2020.
By contrast, China can course-correct only if the great helmsman, President Xi Jinping, decides to do so. It’s easy to be impressed by the huge infrastructure projects that the centralised Chinese government can undertake. But look at the other side of the balance sheet and you’ll find a mountain of dodgy debts.
Of course, Trump is no stranger to dodgy debt, and his administration has thrown fiscal caution to the wind with its recent tax cuts. But there’s little doubt that the current trade war is hurting China more than it is hurting America. Imposing tariffs on Chinese exports may be lousy economics, but it’s proving to be a serious political stress-test for Xi.
The fashion for worrying about the decline of democracy began in the mid-1990s, when America’s victory in the Cold War was starting to seem too good to be true. But 10 years earlier the doom-mongers had been warning that Ronald Reagan’s defence build-up would bankrupt America, and this would clear the way for the rise of . . . Japan.
Perhaps one of the secrets of American success is precisely that some doomster is always predicting the decline and fall of the republic. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you” has been New York wisdom since the Seventies. Yes — and maybe just by being paranoid we make sure they never quite catch us.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
I have many friends who hate Donald Trump. Most are liberal, academic types who hate him the way their parents or grandparents once hated Richard Nixon. Their hate is tempered by the fact that Trump is not currently bombing or invading a foreign country. Remember, it was the anti-Vietnam movement that elevated hating Nixon above the realm of party politics. (Even though Nixon insisted he was trying to end a war that Democrats had started, they never believed him.)
Far more visceral in their hatred of Trump are the “Never Trump” Republicans. Many of them are or were neoconservatives, so pacifism is not one of their defining characteristics. Indeed, I sometimes think that if Trump declared war on someone — ideally Russia, but they’d settle for Iran or Syria — they’d forgive him everything.
Never-Trumpers hate Trump for very different reasons from my liberal friends. Liberals hate Trump because they think he’s a sexist, a racist, a crook and a buffoon. Never-Trumpers don’t much like those things about him either, but they hate him because of his foreign policy. They believe in free trade. He’s a protectionist. They want to spread democracy. He likes authoritarians. In particular, he likes Vladimir Putin. Having come of age in the Cold War, Never-Trumpers loathe the former KGB agent Putin. In 2016 it was neocons, not liberals, who were the first to spot that something fishy was going on between Trump’s campaign and the Russians.
One of my Never-Trump friends frequently emails me articles from the publications he reads. They all say essentially the same thing: that Trump is the worst president in the history of the US.
Last week, in the aftermath of Trump’s meeting with Putin, his email subject lines said it all. “The moment called for Trump to stand up for America. He chose to bow — The Washington Post.” This was followed by: “What hold does Putin have on Trump? — The Atlantic.” Next came: “After Helsinki, any responsible member of Trump’s national security team must resign — Slate.” And: “Trump summit betrays his country for Russia in plain sight — New York magazine.”
For the first time in my life, I began to feel sorry for my poor, pummelled inbox: “The most bizarre part of Trump’s disastrous press conference was his deference to Putin — Slate”; “Trump is a sad, embarrassing wreck of a man — The Washington Post”; “Is this Trump’s most ridiculous denial yet? — The Washington Post”.
Finally, the coup de grâce: “The stench from Trump’s execrable performance grows ever more putrid — The Washington Post”.
Not since Jane Austen has a truth been so universally acknowledged: the Helsinki summit was an utter, unmitigated disaster. Even Newt Gingrich had to admit that Trump’s comments in Helsinki were “the most serious mistake of his presidency”.
It would certainly take the hide of a rhinoceros and a neck of solid brass to defend the president’s declaration in Helsinki on Monday that he was more inclined to believe Putin than his own director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, on the question of Russian interference in the 2016 election. But why bother doing so? By Tuesday, “I don’t see any reason why it would be [Russia]” had been amended to “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia”. Cue fresh outrage from liberals and Never-Trumpers alike.
How much outrage do people have left? I predict they will run out of outrage before Trump runs out of double negatives. They forget that this kind of utter, unmitigated disaster is a key part of Trump’s modus operandi. Remember Charlottesville? The statement that seemed to play down the role of white supremacists? The grudgingly contrite statement taking the original statement back? The statement undermining the contrite statement? That was 11 months ago. Remember Access Hollywood? Remember all the other utter, unmitigated disasters of 2016 that somehow didn’t prevent this man from becoming president?
Having no shame means that you don’t mind saying outrageous things and then contradicting yourself, and then contradicting yourself again. It’s one of Trump’s tried-and-tested techniques for maintaining his total dominance of the global news cycle. This is so complete now that there is almost no other political news. We are all Thai boys, trapped in a cave called Trump. The difference is, there are no rescue divers coming.
As long as the media accept that he alone is the story, the following two things are true. First, no one pays any attention to what any other branch of government does. The Supreme Court? The Federal Reserve? The Department of Defence? Does anyone actually know or care what these bodies have been doing in the past week?
Second, if no one pays any attention to the rest of the government, it can quietly get on with the substantive judicial, economic and strategic change for which the Trump presidency will eventually be remembered. While you were all obsessing about Trump, the Supreme Court was moving decisively to the right, the Fed was trying to cool down a galloping economy and the Pentagon was getting a complete overhaul under James Mattis, the defence secretary.
Future historians will mention Helsinki, but — if they are any good — the question they will ask is: what did Trump and Putin actually discuss in private, with only interpreters present? If I know Putin, it will have been the big-picture geopolitical stuff. Let me hazard a guess at what was said.
VP: What is the point of our constantly being at odds, Donald?
DT: Beats me.
VP: These sanctions are the work of your corrupt Congress. They are pointless. I am not giving back Crimea, and you know it.
DT: That’s a fact.
VP: True, I occasionally try to liquidate my political opponents, sometimes in foreign locations such as Salisbury, sometimes unsuccessfully, but your CIA has been doing that kind of wet job since time immemorial.
DT: There’s no denying it.
VP: Who are our real enemies?
DT: The Chinese. The Iranians. I’m kind of sick of the Germans too.
VP: You’re talking my language. I don’t much like those guys either. Here’s the way I see it. If you and I can work together, I can help you and you can help me. We cut a deal in the Middle East. We screw the Iranians — I don’t need them any more in Syria. We put the squeeze on the Chinese before they take over the world, including my back yard in central Asia. And we remind the Germans how much they fear us and need you.
DT: I like it.
VP: But just one thing, Donald.
DT: What’s that?
VP: No one must find out what we just agreed. So when we do the press conference, make sure you play your usual game with the press.
DT: Leave it to me.
VP: You know what the historians will call you and me one day, Donald?
DT: No — what?
VP: The Double Negatives.
DT: I don’t see why they wouldn’t!
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
I picked a fine time to become an American. It was a grey, overcast morning in Oakland, California. The finest England football team for a generation had just been beaten by the dastardly Croats. And Hurricane Donald Trump was making landfall in London.
Theresa May v Trump had one thing in common with England v Croatia. If in doubt, the other side played the man, not the ball — or, in the case of the prime minister, the woman. “I would have done it [Brexit] much differently,” Trump told The Sun. “I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t agree, she didn’t listen to me.”
(Sound of breaking glass in Downing Street)
“The deal she is striking is a much different deal than the one the people voted on. It was not the deal that was in the referendum.”
(Alarm bells start ringing)
“If they do a deal like that, we would be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the UK, so it will probably kill the . . . trade deal with the US.”
And what did Trump think of his Old Etonian doppelganger, Boris Johnson, until last Monday the foreign secretary? “I am just saying I think he would be a great prime minister. I think he’s got what it takes.”
Yes, I picked a fine time to become an American, as a 20ft Trump “baby” balloon floated over London, hideously symbolising a new nadir in Anglo-American ties.
Or perhaps not. Down on the ground, slack-jawed Tories studied the government’s Brexit white paper, a substantial number of them thinking pretty much what Trump had so bluntly told The Sun. So when May had said “Brexit means Brexit”, what she actually meant was Britain would become an unhappy cross between Switzerland and Ukraine. Common rule book? Consultation of the European Court of Justice on disputed points of European law? Brexit shmexit.
And this is just the prime minister’s opening pitch. It has taken two years to thrash out within the government and was finalised only at the cost of two cabinet-level resignations. Heaven only knows how many further concessions the EU’s formidable divorce lawyer Monsieur Michel Barnier will demand. And when she brings the further-mutilated compromise back to Westminster, these are the lousy options MPs will have to choose between: swallow fake Brexit (which everyone despises), risk a no-deal hard Brexit (for which no one has prepared) or call another referendum (which no one wants).
Come to think of it, I picked a fine time to become an American.
I was one of 1,094 people of every colour and creed, from 85 nations, beginning with Afghanistan and ending with Yemen. We had gathered, anxiously clutching the requisite documents, outside the rather antique Paramount cinema. I was not the only new citizen of European origin, but we were a distinct minority. Rather to my surprise, the Chinese were the most numerous group, accounting for close to a fifth of the new Americans (how many Americans became Chinese citizens last week?). Next were the Mexicans (more than 150 of them), then the Filipinos, closely followed by the Indians.
Yet it was the sheer range of countries represented that was most marvellous. The young man to my right, immaculately dressed in white, was from Eritrea. He had studied computer science in Swansea and had initially come to California to work for Nasa. Others among us were plainly less well educated. Observing those who had failed to follow the simple instructions to tick the boxes on one last form, I wondered how on earth they had passed the citizenship test, with its occasionally tricky questions on American history and geography.
I approach any encounter with US bureaucracy weighed down by dread. Would this be like the Department of Motor Vehicles, famed for its Soviet-style antagonism to the public? Or would it be more like the implacable, pitiless Internal Revenue Service? In fact the officials of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services could hardly have been more affable. The master of ceremonies was a genial, balding, bespectacled chap who won his audience over with a virtuoso display of multilingualism, chatting to us in what sounded like pretty fluent Spanish, Chinese, French, Hindi and Filipino.
Yet this was very far from a multicultural occasion. Quite the reverse. To get us in the mood for our impending Americanisation, a choir sang a patriotic medley, including a rather baroque setting of the preamble to the constitution, Yankee Doodle and Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land.
That did it. The way that song conjures up vast American landscapes (“From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters”) always gets me by the throat because, glimpsed in films, such vistas were what first drew me to the United States.
Then came the information about our rights and obligations — specifically our right to vote, our option to obtain a passport and our inextricable link to the social security system. (Nothing — rather disappointingly — about the right to bear arms. And not a word about the spiralling federal debt we were all now on the hook for.)
The ceremony then became more stirring. A “Faces of America” video had a distinctly martial soundtrack. We raised our right hands to swear the oath of allegiance, absolutely and entirely renouncing and abjuring “all allegiance to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty” and swearing to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law”. Then we placed our right hands on our hearts to recite the pledge of allegiance to the national flag “and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”.
It’s heady stuff, even in Oakland on a Thursday morning. And then there he was — eliciting disapproving intakes of breath from some — the Potus himself, much larger than life on the big screen. “This country is now your country,” Trump told us sternly. “Our history is now your history. And our traditions are now your traditions.”
And that wasn’t all: “You now share the obligation to teach our values to others, to help newcomers assimilate to our way of life.” Compare and contrast with the Barack Obama version: “Together, we are a nation united not by any one culture, or ethnicity, or ideology . . .”
The grand finale was God bless the USA, a bombastic country anthem by Lee Greenwood. It too was a call to arms. “And I’m proud to be an American / Where at least I know I’m free / And I won’t forget the men who died / Who gave that right to me / And I’d gladly stand up next to you / And defend her still today.”
More than half a century of being British has made it hard for me not to cringe at this kind of thing. But this hokum is now my hokum. And this president is now my president, until such times as we, the people, vote in another one. Yes, I picked a fine time to become an American — because there is no other kind of time.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
If Germany’s footballers have been the biggest losers of the year to date, then the Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson has been among the biggest winners. His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos — only the second he has ever published— has sold more than a million copies. His YouTube channel has 1.26m followers.
The cerebral Spider-Man at the heart of the so-called intellectual dark web (an informal network of academics who have resisted the current campus cultural revolution), Peterson began his rise to fame by opposing a 2016 Canadian bill that proposed to make “gender identity or expression” a prohibited basis for discrimination.
“I will never use words I hate,” Peterson declared, “like the trendy and artificially constructed [gender-neutral pronouns] ‘zhe’ and ‘zher’. These words are at the vanguard of a postmodern, radical leftist ideology that I detest, and which is . . . frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100m people in the 20th century.”
You can imagine how that went down with the diversity police at Toronto University. But Peterson bravely refused to kowtow. “Under the guise of postmodernism,” he lamented, “we’ve seen the rapid expansion of identity politics throughout the universities . . . We’ve been publicly funding extremely radical, postmodern leftist thinkers who are hellbent on demolishing the fundamental substructure of western civilisation.”
Amen to all that. Amen squared.
Peterson is fearless. His 12 Rules for Life begins by contrasting order and chaos as ideal types to be found in both western and oriental philosophical traditions. Order, he notes, “is typically portrayed, symbolically — imaginatively — as masculine”, whereas chaos “as the antithesis of symbolically masculine order [is] presented imaginatively as feminine . . . Order is the white, masculine serpent; chaos, its black, feminine counterpart.”
This was too much for the media feminists. The New York Times published a crude hit piece that dubbed Peterson the “custodian of the patriarchy” and a proponent of “enforced monogamy”. Cathy Newman’s interview on Channel 4 News was intended to deliver the coup de grace by grotesquely caricaturing Peterson’s views. (“So you’re saying like the lobsters, we’re hardwired as men and women to do certain things, to sort of run along tramlines and there’s nothing we can do about it?”)
Yet, as Nietzsche observed, that which does not kill us makes us stronger. These botched attacks only accelerated Peterson’s rise to fame. British viewers marvelled at his saintly calm in the face of Newman’s tendentious questioning. New Yorkers, who generally act as if Canada doesn’t exist, for the first time took notice of the solemn, brown-suited “prairie populist” whom their local rag had tried and failed to take down.
As if to drive the politically correct into apoplexy, Peterson recently revealed he is an honorary member of the extended family of Charles Joseph, a Kwakwaka’wakw artist who has given him the name Alestalagie (“Great Seeker”). The Kwakwaka’wakw are an indigenous people of British Columbia. In today’s culture war, having them on your team is quite simply a grandmaster move.
In 12 Rules, Peterson’s central message is that we must “accept the terrible responsibility of life”. Rule No 1 is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” Number two is “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.” Yes, it’s self-help as only North America does it, but it’s old school, manly, “grow-the-hell-up” self-help. “Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world.” “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).” “Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie.”
“Suffering,” Peterson says, “is built into the structure of being.” Don’t make yourself miserable by pursuing happiness because, he rightly argues, “happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at.”
These are wise words. But there’s some whimsy too. Rule 11 is “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.” Rule 12 is “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.” And central to Peterson’s defence of hierarchy (shock horror) is that analogy between humans and lobsters which gave Cathy Newman so much trouble.
There is only one problem with 12 Rules for Life, and that is that it deals only with normal life. It offers no guidance for the most difficult time in all our lives, namely the summer holidays. What follows, by way of a tribute to Peterson, are therefore my own 12 Rules for Summer, the product of more than half a century of immersion in the entirety of human culture:
1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back, unless you are the one carrying all the luggage, including the baby gear.
2 Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping get some sleep.
3 Make friends with people who want the best wine for you.
4 Compare your holiday destination with the one you went to last year, and not with the one where someone else is this year.
5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them. Send them to camp instead.
6 Do not bother setting your house in perfect order: one of your older kids will probably throw a party in it while you’re away.
7 Pursue what is edible (not what is recommended on TripAdvisor).
8 Do not tell the truth about how much your holiday cost.
9 Assume that the person you are listening to knows something you don’t, such as the local language.
10 Be precise in your speech. Don’t order 12 beers when you mean two.
11 Bother children when they are on their phones. In fact, take their damned phones away.
12 If abroad, kick a cat when you see one on the street. Only the English really like cats.
“We have to rediscover the eternal values,” Peterson has said, “and then live them out.” Yes, and never more so than during the summer holidays. So here, be my guest, have 12 more rules:
1 Plan your journey to minimise stress. Perhaps order and chaos should fly separately this year.
2 Get off social media. And stay off.
3 Don’t carry your phone around.
4 Learn something new. (I recommend paddleboarding.)
5 Do two hours of work in the morning. It’ll stop you worrying. But otherwise switch off.
6 Read a great novel. (My choice this month is Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma.)
7 Take very long walks, the kind of exercise you seldom have time for.
8 Play a musical instrument, even if it is only a tin whistle.
9 Eat and drink less, not more, than usual.
10 Watch no TV (except the World Cup).
11 Take no more than five photographs and one video. That’s plenty.
12 Above all, stop making lists of rules.
Enjoy the summer, dear readers. By this time next year, the diversity police will have decided that the whole concept of a holiday is politically incorrect. Thankfully, we can count on Jordan Peterson to tell them where to go . . . on vacation.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford