Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding. Normal? Photographer: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive via Getty Images
“America’s present need,” the candidate declared, “is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy … My best judgment of America’s need is to steady down, to get squarely on our feet, to make sure of the right path. Let’s get out of the fevered delirium.”
The candidate was the Republican Warren G. Harding and the date was May 14, 1920. Six months later, Harding won a landslide victory over the Democratic nominee, James M. Cox, winning 60% of the popular vote and 404 Electoral College votes.
A return to normalcy: It’s an appealing prospect today, too, amid an ongoing pandemic, in the wake of an unprecedented economic shock, and after four years of political disruption. A century ago, to be sure, Americans had come through worse: the 1918-19 Spanish influenza, which killed around 675,000 people (the equivalent of 2.2 million today), and World War I.
A century ago, there was no incumbent to defeat, as Woodrow Wilson — having been struck down by the flu during the 1919 Paris peace negotiations and then by a severe stroke — was judged by his party to be unfit to run. (It remains to be seen if President Donald Trump’s admission to hospital for Covid-19 presages a premature exit for him.) But the parallel with today is still striking. In the so-called Red Scare of 1919-20, the country had been swept by strikes, protests and race riots. A severe recession had begun in January 1920. By November, what most Americans craved was indeed normalcy.
I have been thinking a lot about the election of 1920 in trying to predict that of 2020. Four years ago, chastened and educated by the experience of Brexit, I felt that Trump had at least an even chance of winning the presidency. Recall that in the week before the Nov. 8, 2016, the left-wing Daily Kos website put Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency at nearly 90%. According to The Upshot in the New York Times, the number was 85%. Betfair said 79%. Nate Silver said 65%.
So what do I think now, when even the ultra-cautious Silver puts Joe Biden’s chance of beating Trump at around 80%? Spoiler: I always said the half-life of populism was short.
Donald Trump is a classic populist, who offered disgruntled voters a heady cocktail of protectionism, nativism, easy money, isolationism and anti-elitism. Comparisons with European fascists between the World Wars always struck me as wide of the mark. Historically, it has generally been hard for mercurial figures such as Trump to win the highest political office, at least in the northern hemisphere. (I never bought former White House adviser Steve Bannon’s analogy between Trump and Andrew Jackson.) From Georges Boulanger to William Jennings Bryan to Huey Long, the history of populism is mostly of near misses — which was part of the reason most pundits assumed Trump would be a near miss four years ago.
When populists do get elected, they almost never deliver all they have promised to their supporters, and are often exposed as even more corrupt than the people they ran against. South America has a lot of experience in this regard, from Juan Peron in Argentina to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Latin American populists get re-elected not because they deliver higher living standards to their supporters (they may do so in the short run, but it always ends in some kind of financial crisis). They get re-elected by repressing their opponents and, when necessary, changing the constitution — a regional pastime.
To read the mainstream press, you would be forgiven for thinking something similar is about to happen in the U.S. According to Barton Gellman in the Atlantic, there is going to be voter suppression, voter intimidation, a declaration of emergency, the bypassing of election results in battleground states, and finally martial law. Trump’s going to steal the election somehow — and it may even be constitutional if he does, Fareed Zakaria has argued. Only a Biden landslide can save the Republic from violence and a constitutional crisis. Forget Hitler and Mussolini; now Trump is Richard III.
It must be said that Trump did everything possible to validate these narratives in last Tuesday night’s debate, short of opening with “Now is the winter of our discontent.” But, as Biden likes to say, “Come on, man.” Trump may have the instincts of a caudillo, but this isn’t Venezuela.
The debate would have mattered only if Biden had looked unmistakably senile. He didn’t. Instead, Trump came across as an insufferable bully. Even my ex-cop friends Mike and Gerry — who backed Trump in 2016 and were infallible guides to that year’s politics — felt their man had been too aggressive. And now it turns out that Trump was mocking Biden for wearing a mask, when he himself was probably already infected with Covid-19. (Not just mocking him, but yelling at him indoors from just six feet away. We won’t be sure for roughly a week that Trump didn’t infect Biden.)
Far from being in peril, I would guess, the Constitution is about to do what it was designed to do: Having successfully constrained a demagogic president throughout his term, in the usual ways — courts striking down executive orders, Supreme Court appointees acting independently, midterms handing the House to the Democrats — it is going to allow voters to eject him from the White House and install in his place dear, old Joe Normal.
For any of the “end of the Republic” scenarios to happen, this election needs to be close — close enough for the results in multiple states to be challengeable. But I struggle to see how this could come about.
If Jimmy Carter couldn’t get a second term after the small recession of January to July 1980, and if George H.W. Bush couldn’t get one after the comparably minor recession of July 1990 to March 1991, how on earth can Donald Trump get a second term after the disaster that has befallen the U.S. this year? Who gets re-elected after a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and a recession that sent unemployment up to 14.7% in April, compared with peaks under Carter and the elder Bush of 7.8%? Trump’s latest jobs report has unemployment at 7.9%.
Even with the recovery that’s occurred since the lockdown low-point back in the spring, the U.S. economy is still on course to shrink by 3.8% this year, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. The only example I know of a democratic leader getting re-elected under such economic conditions is Angela Merkel in 2009.
Now let’s look at the polls, where Biden leads Trump by an average of around 7 percentage points. The remarkable thing here is the consistency of Biden’s lead: Over more than a year he has never been less than four points ahead. We’ve seen nothing like this in our lifetimes — in most presidential elections since 1968, the polls have bounced around, sometimes wildly.
Moreover, Biden’s lead right now is not just bigger than Clinton’s four years ago at this stage in the race; it is also bigger than Barack Obama’s 32 days out in both 2008 and 2012. If the news on the pandemic and the economy is bad between now and election day, Trump could end up where John McCain did, seven points behind. Or, if the news improves, he could somehow claw his way back, as Mitt Romney did in 2012, and still lose. What I struggle to imagine is Trump getting close enough to rerun the George W. Bush-Al Gore standoff of Florida 2000 in multiple states.
Remember what happened in the final phase of the 2016 campaign. First, a relentless stream of negative news about Clinton throughout October ate away at her lead. Second, state polls seriously underestimated Trump’s support in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Finally, third-party candidates took 6% of the vote in 2016. Maybe there’s a secret stash of toxic opposition research waiting to be unleashed against Biden this month, but I doubt it.
Instead, what we’re getting is a relentless stream of negative news flow about Trump, not the least of which is the New York Times expose of how insanely little income tax the guy has been paying. (As my friend Mike told me last week, “I heard a couple of blue-collar workers today, cops and firemen, talking about the Times story about him not paying any taxes ... it was the first time I ever heard anything negative about Trump from this base.”)
And that’s not the only bad news for Trump. He’s only one of nearly 300,000 Americans who tested positive for Covid-19 last week. The hospitals in Wisconsin are filling up with new Covid-19 cases. And Covid-19 is the main reason Trump is struggling with older voters, a key demographic for him four years ago.
Trump clearly wanted to announce a successful vaccine before the election. That seems less and less likely. Jared Kushner wanted the economy to be “rocking” by now. But the refusal of the pandemic to “go away, like a miracle” is clearly having some adverse effects on the economy, preventing mobility from returning to normal in the most affected states, and slowing the recovery of the labor market. Finally, the finances of the Trump campaign appear to be in disarray (though being outspent did not stop him winning four years ago).
Even if you allow for polling errors as bad as 2016’s in the key states, Trump is going to struggle to get above 240 Electoral College votes, 30 shy of victory. For all these reasons, I am inclined to think he is going to be a one-term president, and that the election result won’t be close enough for full-scale GOP lawfare to save him.
What am I missing? What could make me wish I’d stuck to my contrarian position of four years ago?
After all, only last December another populist, Boris Johnson, won a much bigger victory in the U.K. general election than almost anyone (including me) expected, sweeping a bunch of traditionally Labour-voting working class constituencies in the north of England. Could there be an equivalent surprise in this year’s U.S. election?
Leaving aside the potential Covid-19 impacts on the candidates’ health, I can think of nine reasons why the polls might be even more wrong than last time.
First, a striking 11.7% of Republicans say they would not report their true opinions about their preferred presidential candidate on telephone polls, while 10.5% of independents also fall into the “shy voter” category.
Second, the law-and-order issue really matters to those shy voters. (It also gave Trump his best debate moments.) Polls give us a sample of voters’ stated preferences. Revealed preferences are in many ways more reliable. According to Small Arms Analytics, gun sales in August 2020 were 58% higher than in August 2019, continuing a surge of purchases (especially of handguns) since the spring. In 2016, gun ownership was very closely correlated with voting for Trump.
Third, the resumption of the so-called culture wars this summer was a godsend for Trump. Judging by Tucker Carlson’s ratings — not only on cable but also on YouTube — there are at least five million Americans who share his skepticism about the Black Lives Matter movement, to say nothing of “critical race theory.”
Fourth, check out whose Facebook posts have been getting shared the most this year. On the day of the first presidential debate, five of the top 10 posts were by conservative firebrand Ben Shapiro, not an unusual occurrence this year.
Fifth, the third vacancy on the Supreme Court in as many years was another stroke of luck for Trump. Conservative voters care more about the makeup of the court than liberals, so Amy Coney Barrett was a near-perfect pick to boost Republican turnout.
Sixth, Hispanic voters seem unenthused about Biden and indeed about voting generally. That matters in Florida, obviously, but there are 11 other states where Hispanics are more than 10% of eligible voters, including Arizona and Texas.
Seventh, Republicans are winning the voter-registration game in key states, notably Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Eighth, as a significant percentage of mail-in ballots tend to be rejected because of errors, Trump should benefit from the higher proportion of Democratic voters intending to vote that way.
Finally, don’t underrate the economy. A third-quarter bounce as big as the one projected by the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow would give Trump a second term if you simply plug the number into the wonderfully parsimonious model devised many years ago by Yale’s Ray Fair to predict U.S. elections with economic variables.
Usually, if you can think of nine reasons why a hypothesis might be wrong, it’s probably wrong. And yet, even when I add all these variables together, I still don’t think Trump can salvage the situation. There is a lot of overlap, after all: Most gun purchasers probably owned at least one firearm already, and they may be the same people watching Tucker Carlson, liking Ben Shapiro and rooting for the confirmation of Justice ACB. In terms of new votes in swing states, and therefore Electoral College votes, my nine reasons to be doubtful may sum to zilch.
The probability of a repeat of 2016, when the votes of fewer than 40,000 people got Trump over the line in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, is simply too low. The probability of another 2000 or another 1876 (when the results in four states were contested) is also low. The probability of a contingent election — when no presidential or vice-presidential candidate receives an absolute majority of Electoral College delegates — is even lower: We haven’t seen one involving the presidency since 1824. None of these scenarios is remotely as probable as a victory for the “normalcy” candidate who has been out in front every single month of this annus horribilis.
The irony is that if a Biden victory is accompanied by a Democratic majority in the Senate, then it could suddenly be the turn of Republicans to cry “Republic is in peril,” as projects such as packing the Supreme Court, getting rid of the filibuster in the Senate, and giving statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico (i.e., packing the Senate) will suddenly seem feasible to the progressives.
But that’s the trouble with voting for normalcy. Remember, Americans did just that — overwhelmingly — a hundred years ago. What they got was the Roaring Twenties, followed by the Great Depression, followed by World War II.
It’s too big for one man. Photographer: Nic Coury/Bloomberg
“California, folks, is America fast forward.” Thus Governor Gavin Newsom, hoarsely, amid brown smoke at the North Complex Fire on Sept. 11. “What we’re experiencing right here is coming to a community all across the United States of America … unless we get our act together on climate change.”
I was with him all the way until he said the words “on climate change.”
As my Hoover Institution colleague Victor Davis Hanson put it last month, California is “the progressive model of the future: a once-innovative, rich state that is now a civilization in near ruins. The nation should watch us this election year and learn of its possible future.”
Let’s start with the fires. So far this year, they have torched more than five times as much land as the average of the previous 33 years, killing 25 people and forcing about 100,000 people from their homes. At one point, three of the largest fires in the state’s history were burning simultaneously in a ring around the San Francisco Bay Area. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CAL FIRE, of the 10 largest fires since 1970, five broke out this year. Nine out of 10 have occurred since 2012.
No doubt high temperatures and unusual thunderstorms bear some of the responsibility for this year’s terrifying wildfires on the West Coast. It is deeply misleading to claim, as some diehard deniers still do, that temperatures aren’t rising and making wildfires more likely. But it is equally misleading to claim, as the New York Times did last week, that “scientists say” climate change “is the primary cause of the conflagration.”
In reality, as Stanford’s Rebecca Miller, Christopher Field and Katharine J. Mach argue in a recent article in Nature Sustainability, this crisis has at least as much to do with disastrous land mismanagement as with climate change, and perhaps more. Anyone who thinks solar panels, Teslas and a $3.3 billion white elephant of a high-speed rail line will avoid comparable or worse fires next year (and the year after and the year after) doesn’t understand what the scientists are really saying.
Most measures proposed by environmentalists to reduce carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gas” emissions will pay off over 50 to 100 years, as the International Panel on Climate Change has long made clear. Even a best-case scenario of “stringent mitigation” (what the IPCC calls Representative Concentration Pathway 2.6) would not bring carbon dioxide emissions down to 1950 levels until around 2050. Nor would it lower global average temperatures; it would merely stop them rising.
And that’s only if the whole world — including China and India — takes action. California’s wildfire problem cannot be solved by the state’s citizens “getting their act together on climate change,” in Newsom’s words. The problem needs immediately effective action — and that means a return to sane forest management, if such a return is still possible. For decades, Democratic leaders in California have presided over a policy of leaving dead trees to rot, instead of the old and rational system of prescribed or controlled burns, not least because environmental and clear air regulations, as well as problems of legal liability, made controlled burns harder and harder to do.
In prehistoric California, according to a recent analysis in ProPublica, between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year. California’s land managers burned about 30,000 acres a year on average between 1982 and 1998. Over the next 18 years, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres. The result has been a huge accumulation of highly flammable kindling.
Miller, Field and Mach concluded that a total area of around 20 million acres — roughly one-fifth of the state’s territory — was in urgent need of “fuel treatment,” meaning prescribed burns, mechanical thinning and managed wildfire. It is hard to imagine anything remotely close to that happening under the current political dispensation. (The authors politely called for “fundamental shifts in prescribed-burn policies, beyond those currently under consideration.”) Or rather, it is going to happen, but at a time of Nature’s choosing, with catastrophic consequences.
A case in point: For a year and a half, red tape slowed down a forest-thinning project in Berry Creek, Butte County. The project covered just 54 acres but, thanks to the burdensome provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act, work had yet to start when the North Complex wildfire struck, devastating the town and killing 10 people.
I have some skin in this game. Four years ago, I moved from Harvard University to Stanford University. My family traded a solid, century-old professorial residence in Cambridge for a wooden house in a wooded area that to our wooden heads seemed most idyllic. A few weeks ago, our neighborhood was on the edge of the evacuation zone.
However, I have less skin in the game than Victor Davis Hanson. He lives on the fruit and nut farm near Selma, in the Central Valley, that his family has owned since the 1870s. The air quality index in Stanford rose above 170 on three days in the last month. In Selma last week it was 460. (Anything above 301 qualifies as “emergency conditions.”)
I write these words over 1,000 miles from our California home, but it’s no good: in recent days the smoke has found us, too. Hotel parking lots full of vehicles with CA license plates confirm that we are not the only eastward migrants. It’s like Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” in reverse: Now that the Golden State is the Char-Grilled State, Californians have become the new Okies, though a good deal less impecunious.
Yet wildfires are only one of the reasons people are fleeing California. In addition, the wrongheaded environmental policies of the sages of Sacramento have so undermined the power grid (for example, by shutting down gas-fired power plants and refusing to count hydroelectric energy as renewable) that residents have been subjected to rolling blackouts this year. The same policies have largely killed off the oil and gas industry. Newsom & Co. have failed to upgrade the water system to keep pace with the last half-century of population growth.
It’s not that California politicians don’t know how to spend money. Back in 2007, total state spending was $146 billion. Last year it was $215 billion. I know, I know: In real terms California’s GDP increased by nearly a third in the same period. And I know: If it were an independent nation it would be the fifth-largest economy in the world, ahead of India’s. But for how much longer will that be true?
California’s taxes aren’t the highest in the country — for the median household. But the tax system is one of the most progressive, with a 13.3% top tax rate on incomes above $1 million — and that’s no longer deductible from the federal tax bill as it used to be. The top 1% of taxpayers (those earning more than $500,000) now account for half of personal income-tax revenue. And there’s worse to come.
The latest brilliant ideas in Sacramento are to raise the top income rate up to 16.8% and to levy a wealth tax (0.4% on personal fortunes over $30 million) that you couldn’t even avoid paying if you left the state. (The proposal envisages payment for up to 10 years after departure to a lower-tax state.) It is a strange place that seeks to repel the rich while making itself a magnet for illegal immigrants by establishing no fewer than 20 “sanctuary” cities or counties.
And the results of all this progressive policy? A poverty boom. California now has 12% of the nation's population, but over 30% of its welfare recipients. By the official measure, based mainly on income and family size, California’s 11.4% poverty rate in 2019 was close to the national average over the past three years. However, according to a new Census Bureau report, which takes housing and other costs into account, the real poverty rate in California is 17.2%, the highest of any state. (Newsom gets one thing right when he says, “We're living in the wealthiest as well as the poorest state in America.”)
About a third of California’s poverty can be attributed to housing and other living costs such as clothing and utilities. As everyone who resides there knows, there’s a chronic housing shortage in the Bay Area (the median-priced home in San Francisco costs about $1.5 million), mainly because a plethora of regulations make the construction of affordable housing well-nigh impossible. In blithe disregard of all we know about rent controls — which discourage landlords from providing housing — that is, predictably, the solution the Democrats propose.
But that’s not all. The state’s public schools rank 37th in the country overall and have the highest pupil-teacher ratio. “Only half of California students meet English standards and fewer meet math standards, test scores show,” was a headline in the Los Angeles Times last October. Health care and pension costs are unsustainable. Oh, and they messed up on Covid-19, despite imposing the nation’s first shelter-in-place orders. Having prematurely claimed victory, California now leads New York in terms of cases, though not deaths.
Back in the 1960s, California was the world’s fantasy destination. “California Dreamin’,” “California Girls,” “Going to California” — you know the songs. But reputations have a way of outliving reality. Despite the economic miracle wrought in Silicon Valley, beginning with the genesis of the internet back in the 1970s, and despite the continuing strength of the state’s universities, the dream in terms of quality of life has slowly died.
When I first visited San Francisco in 1981, it was still one of the loveliest cities I had ever beheld. Now its streets are so filthy — human feces and syringe needles are the principal hazards — that I avoid it. (I was going to say “like the plague,” but that’s Lake Tahoe.)
Yet the Bay Area and its southern sister Los Angeles are only one of the two Californias. As Hanson argued 10 years ago, the Central Valley is another country, more “Caribbean” or Latin American, where “countless inland communities … have become near-apartheid societies, where Spanish is the first language, the schools are not at all diverse, and the federal and state governments are either the main employers or at least the chief sources of income.”
The principal reason for California’s decline is that the Golden State became a one-party state. The Republican candidate won California in every election but one (1964) between 1952 and 1988. But the Democrat has won California in every election since, with the Democratic vote share rising from 46% in 1992 to 62% in 2016.
Democrats now have 61 out of 80 seats in the California State Assembly. The last time Republicans had a majority (of one) was in 1994, but that was an anomaly. The Democrats have essentially controlled the State Senate since 1958, with rising majorities since the 1990s. Apart from 1994, the only other year since 1958 when they did not win a majority of seats in the Assembly was 1968.
When regular voting has no effect, people eventually vote with their feet. From 2007 until 2016, about five million people moved to California but six million moved out to other states. For years before that, the newcomers were poorer than the leavers. This net exodus is surging in 2020. And businesses (for example, Charles Schwab Corp.) are leaving too. Silicon Valley is going virtual, with many big tech companies thinking of making work from home permanent for at least some employees. (One tech chief executive told me last week that his engineers were pleading not to return to the office.)
People are getting out of the Bay Area as much and perhaps more than they are getting out of New York City. Texas is only one of the favored alternatives. Realtors in Montana are reporting record demand from West Coast refugees. The hotels are full, which is unheard of at this time of year. I also know a number of eminent Californians who are now Hawaiians.
The conservative writer and broadcaster Ben Shapiro, born in L.A., just announced that he is heading to Nashville, Tennessee. “I love the state, grew up in the state, married in the state and have had children in the state,” he told Laura Ingraham. But California was “not a great place to raise children and not a great place to build a company.” Now we know the true meaning of Calexit. It’s not secession. It’s exodus.
I cannot blame the leavers. When I moved West in 2016, it was in the naive belief that California was Massachusetts without snow and Stanford was Harvard with September weather all year round. How wrong I was.
But am I leaving? Well, maybe there’s no point. As Newsom’s predecessor Jerry Brown put it last week: “There are going to be problems everywhere in the United States. This is the new normal. It’s been predicted and it’s happening … Tell me: Where are you going to go? What’s your alternative?”
Great question, but — as with Newsom’s prophecy — wrongly framed. The big problem is not that climate change is coming to every state. It is, though most states will mitigate it better than California. The problem is that Democratic governance could be coming to the nation as a whole, starting on Jan. 20. And with the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, turning 78 two weeks after election day, it is not a little troubling to me that his vice-presidential pick is a Californian, just as so many of his plans to spend, tax and regulate have “designed in California” all over them.
Yes, folks, California is America fast forward. Can someone please hit pause?
Successful Democratic candidates for the presidency of the United States invariably campaign with promises of domestic largesse and moral uplift. They nearly always end up taking their country to war. Can Joe Biden be a rare exception to that rule, if he succeeds in defeating Donald Trump on November 3? That will depend not just on how well he and his national security team conduct U.S. foreign policy. It will also depend on how stable the world around them is. The bad news is that post-pandemic peace is another historical rarity.
First, the Democratic Party’s amazing century-plus track record of running on progressive policies and then going to war. Consider Woodrow Wilson, reviled by today’s progressives for his racist views, but nominated and elected in 1912 as a progressive.
Wilson’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in Baltimore was a classic in the genre of American uplift. “We must speak,” he told the delegates, “not to catch votes, but to satisfy the thought and conscience of a people deeply stirred by the conviction that they have come to a critical turning point in their moral and political development. We stand in the presence of an awakening Nation, impatient of partisan make-believe. … Nor was the country ever more susceptible to unselfish appeals to the high arguments of sincere justice.”
“The Nation has been unnecessarily, unreasonably, at war within itself,” declared Wilson. But now “the forces of the Nation are asserting themselves against every form of special privilege and private control, and are seeking bigger things than they have ever heretofore achieved. They are sweeping away what is unrighteous in order to vindicate once more the essential rights of human life.”
In office, Wilson offered progressive policy as well. His “New Freedom” agenda cut protectionist tariffs, introduced the first federal income tax, passed the Clayton Antitrust Act and created the Federal Trade Commission, not to mention the Federal Reserve. Reelected partly on a pledge to keep the United States out of World War I, however, he did just the opposite in April 1917.
The pattern repeated itself for the next hundred years. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was swept to power amid the Great Depression with the promise of a New Deal. “Let us now and here highly resolve,” FDR told his fellow Democrats at their 1932 convention in Chicago, “to resume the country’s interrupted march along the path of real progress and of real justice and of real equality for all our citizens, great or small.” Uplift was duly followed by a raft of legislation designed to reduce poverty and inequality by increasing the power of the federal government. Despite even stronger anti-war sentiment than Wilson had faced, Roosevelt led the United States into World War II in 1941.
Harry Truman’s acceptance speech at Philadelphia in July 1948 continued the tradition: “The Democratic Party is the people’s party, and the Republican party is the party of special interest, and it always has been and always will be. … In 1932 we were attacking the citadel of special privilege and greed. We were fighting to drive the money changers from the temple. Today, in 1948, we are now the defenders of the stronghold of democracy and of equal opportunity, the haven of the ordinary people of this land and not of the favored classes or the powerful few.” Having won a famous surprise victory over Thomas E. Dewey, Truman unveiled his domestic “Fair Deal” early in 1949. Less than 18 months later, North Korea invaded South Korea and America was back at war.
John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson between them set new standards for both rhetorical uplift (Kennedy) and progressive legislation (Johnson). Yet by 1968 neither his civil rights legislation nor the Great Society could salvage Johnson’s presidency from the wreckage of the war in Vietnam.
Subsequent Democratic presidents strove mightily to avoid LBJ’s fate. Yet the world would not leave Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in peace to pursue their domestic agendas. Carter’s presidency was dealt fatal blows by the hostage crisis after the Iran Revolution of February 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan ten months later. Clinton spent years trying to avoid foreign entanglements, in Somalia, in Rwanda and in Bosnia, until the last of these forced him into military intervention. Obama may still believe his decision not to intervene in the Syrian Civil War was one of his best, but the red line on the use of chemical weapons — which turned out to be a pink dotted line — was in truth the most ignominious chapter of his presidency.
Joe Biden’s speech on Thursday night was the continuation of a very long tradition in lofty Democratic rhetoric, traceable all the way back to Thomas Jefferson. “If you entrust me with the presidency,” declared Biden, “I will draw on the best of us not the worst. I will be an ally of the light not of the darkness. It's time for us, for We the People, to come together. For make no mistake. United we can, and will, overcome this season of darkness in America. We will choose hope over fear, facts over fiction, fairness over privilege.” Whoever wrote that speech had done their homework. At times I wondered if an algorithm had mashed it up on the basis of all previous Democratic acceptance speeches.
The common feature of all but one Democratic acceptance speeches since 1912 is the tiny proportion devoted to foreign policy. The exception is John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech in Los Angeles in 1960, which was roughly half Cold War rhetoric designed to outflank Richard Nixon on national security. Biden didn’t go there. Less than 3% of his acceptance speech was on foreign policy, and it was bromidic as well as brief. Biden pledged to “stand with our allies and friends,” to desist from “cozying up to dictators” (mentioning no names), and not to “turn a blind eye to Russian bounties on the heads of American soldiers” or “foreign interference” in U.S. elections. That was it. The only mention of China was apropos of the need to make America less dependent on Chinese-made medical supplies and protective equipment. To listen to Biden’s speech, you would not know that the United States is already up to its neck in Cold War II, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out here and elsewhere.
No doubt a majority of people who tuned in to Biden’s speech share his unspoken wish that this Second Cold War will simply go away the moment he is sworn in. Biden it was who launched his bid for the Democratic nomination with the observation that the Chinese were “not bad folks, folks” and were “not competition for us” — and who earlier this month seemed ready to promise an end to U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports.
I have bad news. It wasn’t Donald Trump who started Cold War II; it was Xi Jinping. And, as I pointed out two weeks ago, his vision of a resurgent China challenging the United States not merely economically but ideologically and geopolitically is widely shared by Chinese intellectuals and (though it is hard to be sure) many ordinary Chinese people. Notice, too, that anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States has increased almost as much among Democrats as among Republicans in the past few years.
How likely is the world to be a peaceful place between 2021 and 2024, the putative first and likely only term of a Biden presidency? Not unreasonably, Biden’s speech last Thursday focused on the adverse impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the United States. Yet the key question for an incoming Biden administration will not be what to do about the pandemic, as I suspect — one cannot be certain — it will largely be over by January next year. The key question will not be — as many Democrats think — how best to spend all the money the United States can possibly borrow, now that all fiscal and monetary restraint has been cast aside. The key questions will be how generally unstable the post-pandemic world will be and how specifically toxic the Sino-American relationship will get.
History does not give much ground for optimism on these scores. More often than not, as in 1918–19, times of war have been followed by times of plague, but the direction of causation has also run the other way. The great plagues of the ancient world — smallpox in the Athens of Pericles (429–426 BC) or the Antonine and Justinianic plagues that struck the Roman Empire —did not usher in periods of peace. To give just one example, not long after bubonic plague swept through his empire, beginning in 541 AD, the Emperor Justinian waged a successful campaign to reclaim Italy from the Ostrogoths, as well as resuming his war with the Sassanid (Persian) Empire.
The Black Death of the 1340s was among the most disastrous pandemics in history, killing between one-third and three-fifths of the population of Europe. Yet it did not prevent one of history’s most protracted conflicts from getting underway. The Hundred Years’ War between England and France began on June 24, 1340, with the destruction of the French fleet at the Battle of Sluys by Edward III’s naval expedition. Six years later, despite the ravages of the plague, Edward launched a cross-Channel invasion, capturing Caen and marching to Flanders, inflicting a heavy defeat on Philip VI’s army at Crécy, and proceeding to conquer Calais. The French king’s ally, David II of Scotland, then invaded England, only to be defeated. In 1355, Edward III’s son, the “Black Prince,” led another force into France, winning a major victory at Poitiers. A third English invasion went less well, leading to a temporary peace in 1360, but the war resumed in 1369 and continued intermittently until 1453.
At the time, nobody knew that the two countries were embarking on a “Hundred Years War.” That phrase was not coined by historians until 1823. But such is history. Most people still do not grasp that Cold War II has begun. Cold War I was a forty-year affair. But who is to say that the U.S.-China conflict will not be another hundred years’ war?
One disaster begets another. A pandemic creates a cascade of economic, social and political problems, which in turn can often precipitate cross-border conflicts. Watch, for instance, as COVID-19’s disruption of food production all over the developing world, but especially in Africa, leads not just to hunger but to population displacements and political frictions.
For that matter, look around at what’s already happening. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, Russia and Turkey have effectively partitioned Libya, Chinese and Indian soldiers have skirmished hand-to-hand on their border, the port of Beirut has blown up, toppling the Lebanese government, revolution has broken out in Belarus and there has been a military coup in Mali. Is peace at hand? Well, there has been an unexpected breakthrough in the Middle East, with the normalizing of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (a deal for which Jared Kushner deserves more credit than he is receiving). But anyone who thinks Iran is going to suspend its nefarious activities in the region just because Joe Biden is in the White House doesn’t understand the regime in Tehran.
The central issue at stake between the United States and China is not Trumps’ tariffs, nor his attempt to have a U.S. tech company take over TikTok, nor Xi’s suppression of pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, nor his genocidal policies against the Uighurs in Xinjiang — nor even the extent of China’s culpability for the Covid-19 pandemic. The central issue is Taiwan and it is due to blow up in a few weeks’ time, when new U.S. regulations come into force that will cut off Huawei from all imported semiconductors made with either American technology or software. As my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Tim Culpan argued last week, this really is the “nuclear option,” because it “threatens to kill the company, which invites retaliation from Beijing.”
Ever wondered why it was that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941? As Harvard’s Graham Allison recently reminded us, it was because of intolerable economic sanctions imposed by the United States. Yes, that’s right: under the Democratic President Joe Biden most wants to be associated with.
Last week’s virtual convention was a great opportunity to hate on Republicans, and especially on Donald Trump. But for all his many flaws, Trump has upheld a great GOP tradition — of not starting foreign wars. The exception to the rule of Republican dovishness over the past century was of course George W. Bush, who got America into two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. (George H. W. Bush’s war to liberate Kuwait was Bismarckian in its short duration and low cost in life.) The rest — Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan — were notable for the small number of young Americans they sent into battle: vastly fewer than their Democratic counterparts.
“Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes” is a line from Virgil, usually translated as “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” I feel the same way about Democrats when they make uplifting speeches full of promises about billions (sorry, make that trillions) of dollars to be spent on public health, education, health care and infrastructure. If there is one man I can readily imagine—inadvertently, of course, and with the best of intentions and the most uplifting of rhetoric—turning Cold War II into World War III, it is the self-anointed heir of FDR, Joseph Robinette 1 Biden Jr.
1 According to Biden family lore, “allegedly the Robinettes came over with Lafayette and never went home.” Now remind yourself what Lafayette came over for.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Not making his day. Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg
It’s hard to get past the initial sheer inanity of TikTok.
I spent half an hour trying to make sense of the endless feed of video snippets of ordinary people doing daft things with their dogs or in their kitchens or in the gym. I figured out the viral memes of the moment: animals dancing to Tono Rosario’s “Kulikitaka,” the suspenseful unveiling of hunks or hounds to the repeated words, “Please don’t be ugly.” I asked my eight-year-old son what I should look out for. He recommended the dancing ferret. I never found it.
Thirty minutes of TikTok left me with just one burning question: How can this thing be a threat to U.S. national security?
And then I had the epiphany. TikTok is not just China’s revenge for the century of humiliation between the Opium Wars and Mao’s revolution. It is the opium — a digital fentanyl, to get our kids stoked for the coming Chinese imperium.
First, the back story — which you’ll need if you, like me, never got hooked on Facebook, or Instagram, or Snapchat, and still use the Internet like a very fast version of your university library, and begin emails with “Dear …”
The year is 2012, and Zhang Yiming, a Chinese tech entrepreneur who briefly worked at Microsoft, founds ByteDance Ltd. as a smartphone-focused content provider. His AI-powered news aggregator Toutiao is a hit. In November 2017, he pays $1 billion for a lip-synching app called Musical.ly, which already has a growing user community that tilts young (12 to 24) and female and is established in the U.S. Zhang then merges Musical.ly with his own short-video app TikTok, known in China as Douyin.
The thing spreads faster than Covid-19: TikTok now has 800 million monthly active users around the globe. And it’s far more contagious: Just under half of U.S. teenage internet users have used TikTok. If it were a pathogen, it would be the Black Death. But it’s an app, so ByteDance is now worth $100 billion.
So what’s the secret of TikTok’s success? The best answers I’ve seen come from Ben Thompson, whose Stratechery newsletter has become essential reading on all the things tech. First, Thompson wrote last month, the history of analog media already told us that “humans like pictures more than text, and moving pictures most of all.” Second, TikTok’s video creation tools are really “accessible and inspiring for nonprofessional videographers.” Translation: Idiots can use them.
Third, unlike Facebook, TikTok is not a social network. It’s an AI-based algorithmic feed that uses all the data it can get about each user to personalize content. “By expanding the library of available video from those made by your network to any video made by anyone on the service,” Thompson argues, “Douyin/TikTok leverages the sheer scale of user-generated content … and relies on its algorithms to ensure that users are only seeing the cream of the crop.”
In other words, “think of TikTok as being a mobile-first YouTube,” not Facebook with cool video. It’s “an entertainment entity predicated on internet assumptions about abundance, not Hollywood assumptions about scarcity.”
So what’s not to like? The answer would seem to be quite a lot.
In February, TikTok was fined $5.7 million by the Federal Trade Commission over allegations that it illegally collected personal information from children under the age of 13. In April, the app was temporarily banned in India by the High Court in Madras for carrying child pornographic content and failing to prevent cyberbullying. (The ban was swiftly reversed.)
But Zhang’s real headache was elsewhere. Last November, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (known as CFIUS) began a probe into ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly on the ground that it potentially affected U.S. national security. Seriously? A teenage video app is a threat to the most powerful nation-state on the planet? Well, these days CFIUS regards just about any Chinese investment as a threat — in 2010, it forced the Chinese gaming firm Beijing Kunlun Tech Co. to sell the gay dating app Grindr.
I’ve written before in this space about Cold War II. Well, TikTok has become the Sino-American conflict’s latest casualty.
Zhang Yiming is a great entrepreneur. Though he is personally no authoritarian, he is also a political conformist. ByteDance’s first app, Neihan Duanzi (“inside jokes”), was shut down in 2018 by the National Radio and Television Administration. Zhang had to apologize that its content had been “incommensurate with socialist core values.” He solemnly promised that ByteDance would henceforth “further deepen cooperation” with the Chinese Communist Party.
Until last month, Zhang’s game plan was voluntary separation of ByteDance from China. Like other Chinese tech giants, ByteDance is a “variable interest entity” incorporated in the Cayman Islands, positioning it for an offshore initial public offering in Hong Kong or New York. ByteDance claims that all American data from TikTok are stored in U.S. data centers and backed up in Singapore. The appointment in May of Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive, as TikTok’s new chief executive and ByteDance’s chief operating officer, was the clearest signal yet of where Zhang was headed.
Then, President Donald Trump blew Zhang’s game plan apart.
On June 31, he threatened to ban TikTok in the U.S. On Monday, when Microsoft appeared set to buy TikTok’s U.S. operations, Trump made the characteristically unorthodox and probably illegal suggestion that the U.S. government should get some kind of arrangement fee. “It’s a little bit like the landlord-tenant,” explained the former real-estate developer from Queens. “Without a lease, the tenant has nothing. So they pay what is called ‘key money’ or they pay something.”
Then on Friday, he issued an executive order banning TikTok in the U.S. in 45 days unless it is sold to a non-Chinese entity. (Tencent Holdings Ltd’s even more popular messaging app WeChat will also be banned.)
Trump is wrong to ask for a piece of the action. But he’s right that TikTok needs more than an American chief executive to continue operating in the U.S. Vacuous though its content may seem, TikTok poses three distinct threats.
The first is a good threat: the one it poses to over-mighty, under-regulated Facebook Inc., which the Department of Justice should never have allowed to acquire Instagram and WhatsApp. TikTok has eaten Facebook’s lunch as a platform for video, prompting Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg to try to rip it off with Reels — launched on Wednesday — in the same way that Instagram’s Stories ripped off Snapchat.
Whatever else happens, Reels must not succeed. Nor should Facebook become the owner of TikTok. Facebook’s enormous and malignant influence in the American public sphere is a threat not to national security but to American democracy itself. Its efforts to regulate itself since 2016 have largely been a sham.
The second threat TikTok poses is to children. Like Facebook, like YouTube, like Twitter, TikTok is optimized for user engagement, algorithmically steering users to content that will hook them via its “For You” page. In essence, the AI learns what you like and then gives you more of it. And more. Future historians will marvel that we didn’t give our kids crack cocaine, but did give them TikTok.
Like crack, TikTok is dangerous. For example, TikTok’s users, who are still mostly young and female, love lip-sync videos. These have become a magnet for pedophiles, who can use the app to send girls sexually explicit messages and even remix videos and dance along with them using a feature called Duet. Cases of sexual harassment of minors are easy to find: In February, a 35-year-old Los Angeles man was arrested on suspicion of initiating “sexual and vulgar” conversations with at least 21 girls, some as young as nine.
TikTok’s third threat is geopolitical. For Ben Thompson, who is based in Taiwan, the past year has been revelatory. Having previously played down the political and ideological motivations of the Chinese government, he has now come out as New Cold Warrior. China’s vision of the role of technology is fundamentally different from the West’s, he argues, and it fully intends to export its anti-liberal vision to the rest of the world.
“If China is on the offensive against liberalism not only within its borders but within ours,” he asks, “it is in liberalism’s interest to cut off a vector that has taken root precisely because it is so brilliantly engineered to give humans exactly what they want.”
If you need an update on how the Communist Party is using AI to build a surveillance state that makes Orwell’s Big Brother seem primeval — it’s actually more akin to the dystopia imagined in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1924 novel “We” — read Ross Andersen’s recent essay in the Atlantic, “The Panopticon Is Already Here.”
As Andersen puts it, “In the near future, every person who enters a public space [in China] could be identified, instantly, by AI matching them to an ocean of personal data, including their every text communication, and their body’s one-of-a-kind protein-construction schema. In time, algorithms will be able to string together data points from a broad range of sources — travel records, friends and associates, reading habits, purchases — to predict political resistance before it happens.”
Many of China’s prominent AI startups are the Communist Party’s “willing commercial partners” in this, which is bad enough. But the greater concern, as Andersen says, is that all this technology is for export. Among the countries importing it are Bolivia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mongolia, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Venezuela, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The Chinese response to the American attack on TikTok gives the game away. On Twitter, Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the government-controlled Global Times, called the move “open robbery,” accused Trump of “turning the once great America into a rogue country,” and warned that “when similar things happen time and again, the U.S. will take steps closer to its decline.”
Ah yes, our old friend the decline and fall of American imperialism. And its corollary? In a revealing essay published last April, the Chinese political theorist Jiang Shigong, a professor at Peking University Law School, spelled out the imperial nature of China’s ambition. World history, he argued, is the history of empires, not nation-states, which are a relatively recent phenomenon. (By the way, this has long been my own view.)
“The history of humanity is surely the history of competition for imperial hegemony,” Jiang writes, “which has gradually propelled the form of empires from their original local nature toward the current tendency toward global empires, and finally toward a single world empire.”
The globalization of our time, according to Jiang, is the “single world empire 1.0, the model of world empire established by England and the United States.” But that Anglo-American empire is “unravelling” internally because of “three great unsolvable problems: the ever-increasing inequality created by the liberal economy … ineffective governance caused by political liberalism, and decadence and nihilism created by cultural liberalism.” (Come to think of it, I agree with this, too.)
Moreover, the Western empire is under external attack from “Russian resistance and Chinese competition.” This is not a bid to create an alternative Eurasian empire but “a struggle to become the heart of the world empire.”
If you doubt that China is seeking to take over empire 1.0 and turn it into empire 2.0, based on China’s illiberal civilization, then you are not paying attention to all the ways this strategy is being executed.
China has successfully become the workshop of the world, as we used to be. It now has a Weltpolitik known as One Belt One Road, a vast infrastructure project that looks a lot like Western imperialism as described by J.A. Hobson in 1902. China uses the prize of access to its market to exert pressure on U.S. companies to toe Beijing’s line. It conducts “influence operations” across the West, including the U.S.
One of the many ways America sought to undermine the Soviet Union in Cold War I was by waging a “Cultural Cold War.” This was partly about being seen to beat the Soviets at their own games — chess (Fischer v Spassky); ballet (Rudolf Nureyev’s defection); ice hockey (the “Miracle on Ice” of 1980). But it was mainly about corrupting the Soviet people with the irresistible temptations of American popular culture.
In 1986, the French leftist philosopher and comrade-in-arms of Che Guevara, Jules Régis Debray, lamented, “There is more power in rock music, videos, blue jeans, fast food, news networks and TV satellites than in the entire Red Army.” The French Left sneered at “Coca-colonization.” But Parisians, too, drank Coke.
Now, however, the tables have been turned. In a debate I hosted at Stanford in 2018, the tech billionaire Peter Thiel used a memorable aphorism: “AI is Communist, crypto is libertarian.” TikTok validates the first half of that. In the late 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, Chinese children denounced their parents for rightist deviance. In 2020, during the Covid-19 lockdown and the Black Lives Matter protests, American teenagers posted videos of themselves berating their parents for racism. And they did it on TikTok.
Those inane-seeming words are now lodged in my brain: “Please don’t be ugly.” But TikTok is ugly, very ugly. And severing its hotline to Xi Jinping’s imperial panopticon is the least we can do about it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.