There’s raising Cain — a good, old-fashioned term for running riot or raising hell. And then there’s raising McCain. No American I have met has impressed me more profoundly than Senator John McCain, whose memorial service in Washington I attended yesterday. It was an uplifting occasion, as befitted a true American hero, and I am glad my six-year-old son was by my side to witness it and be inspired by it. But, amid all that patriotic rhetoric, not quite enough was said about John McCain’s hell-raising streak. That was the thing I liked about him most — and it was surely inseparable from his heroism.
I got to know John not long after I began teaching in the United States. I had just published my short history of the British Empire and, rather to my surprise, found myself invited to meet him in his office on Capitol Hill. An avid reader of history, he asked me to suggest some books to take on his regular flights between Washington and Arizona. Flattered, I obliged. It was a misleading overture to an enduring friendship — misleading because that was by far the most professorial conversation we ever had.
One of my fondest memories of John was sitting next to him at the February 2007 Munich security conference, an event he regularly attended. That was the year when the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, delivered a remarkably inflammatory speech, denouncing US policy in the Middle East and the expansion of Nato in eastern Europe.
As Putin spoke, I was vividly reminded of Michael Corleone in the Godfather films: behind his deadpan demeanour was pure menace. The effect on John was seismic. I could sense an approaching eruption — indeed, I could see it as that battle-scarred face turned a bright crimson.
No sooner had Putin sat down than John leapt to his feet. “I just can’t let that pass,” he hissed. “I need to make a statement.” Mindful that he was intending to run for the Republican nomination the following year, I and others sought to dissuade him. His attitude was that an impromptu press conference would show admirable restraint. What he really felt like doing was punching Putin’s lights out.
The New York Times, in common with the rest of the liberal media, had few kind words to say about McCain during his 2008 presidential campaign. (I played a minor role as a foreign policy adviser, which taught me that an adviser is someone who doesn’t get paid so that his advice can be easily ignored.) Back then, The New York Times described him as “aggressive” and “erratic”, his campaign as “angry and derisive”. Numerous commentators insisted that he was too old for the job. (He was 72 on election day and, as we now know, could have served two terms as president with a year and a half to spare.)
Now he is dead, of course, the New York Times can fondly remember him as a hero whose “temper that sometimes bordered on explosiveness” was part of his charm. But my view was always that McCain’s passion was a strength, not a weakness, in a potential president. In later life, unlike in his youth, he had that temper under control — as I saw at Munich, where we persuaded him not to shoot back at Putin from the hip. If any man needed no lectures on self-control from liberal journalists, it was John. He had demonstrated superhuman restraint in the “Hanoi Hilton”, refusing an early release by the North Vietnamese that would have spared him years of torture and deprivation.
At that time, his rage was inseparable from his courage. After the North Vietnamese realised they had captured the son of an admiral, they sent a delegation to offer McCain a ticket home. As a fellow prisoner of war recalled, he erupted. “Here’s a guy that’s all crippled up, all busted up, and he doesn’t know if he’s going to live to the next day, and he literally blew them out of there with a verbal assault.”
Men with Scottish roots have played a disproportionate part in the military history of the United States: check the index in any history of America’s wars and you will find a roll of honour from “Mac” to “Mc”. The McCains claim to be descendants of Robert the Bruce. Having known John McCain, I can well believe it.
The Bruce was no mean leader, and I still believe McCain would have been a great president, especially if the Republican apparat had accepted his first choice as running mate, the Democrat Joe Lieberman. Precisely John’s reputation as an irascible warrior would have deterred America’s enemies — Iran, North Korea and Russia — all of whom built up and flexed their military muscles during the presidency of the man who defeated McCain, Barack Obama. At the same time, as I argued then, precisely McCain’s hawkish record would have made it easier for him to pursue détente with our foes.
In short, I yield to no one in my admiration for John McCain. Had he been elected president — whether in 2000 or in 2008 — the United States and democracy around the world would be in a better state than they are today.
Yet there is one oft-repeated line I don’t endorse: we shall not see his like again. I don’t believe that. On the contrary, I think we are already seeing the emergence of a new generation of veterans turned politicians in his mould: men (and women) who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and are now playing an increasingly important role in public life.
More than a third of the new Republican House members elected in 2016 were veterans, as were 12% of their Democratic counterparts. All told, 95 representatives and senators have military experience. And more are almost certainly coming to Washington in the future. As of November 2016, according to the American Enterprise Institute, 1,039 out of 7,383 state-level legislators had veteran status. This is remarkable, considering that the transition from the draft to an all-volunteer force has greatly reduced the share of service personnel in the total population.
Of course, today’s veteran legislators — men such as Arkansas senator Tom Cotton and Wisconsin representative Mike Gallagher — would be the first to say that McCain was in a league of his own. Yet this generation, too, bears the scars of war. Brian Mast, the Republican who represents Florida’s 18th district, lost both legs in Afghanistan.
McCain personified the ideal of the Roman as well as the American Republic: the citizen-warrior who applies the wisdom learnt in battle to the good governance of the commonwealth, upholding the martial virtues among the lawyers and lobbyists. At a time when honour is conspicuous by its absence from the White House, we shall miss him. But we shall see his like again.
Indeed, I believe the widespread and bipartisan mourning of McCain’s passing is itself a harbinger of a new era in American politics, when those who have already served their country in battle serve it again as civilians — by raising Cain against the cynicism and corruption that for too long have threatened to ruin it.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
My six-year-old son and I have been reading Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. His books are a kind of atheist antidote to CS Lewis’s delightful Narnia series. Central to the plot is the idea, derived from modern physics, that our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes and there could be wormholes that connect one universe to another.
Pullman’s Oxford appears in two versions: one the Oxford we know, still charming but increasingly blighted by modernity’s ugliness, and another — in a world where far less has changed since the 17th century.
Perhaps there are multiple universes. Perhaps there is a planet Earth where, two years ago, about 39,000 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin decided to cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton rather than Donald Trump. What might that planet be like today? The obvious answer is that the impeachment of the president would have begun a year and a half ago.
Trump’s tweets on Friday amounted to a garbled charge sheet, listing all the political detritus Republicans would have packaged as “high crimes and misdemeanours” if Clinton had won the election. He urged the attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, to “look into all of the corruption on the ‘other side’ including deleted Emails, Comey lies & leaks, Mueller conflicts, McCabe, Strzok, Page, Ohr, FISA abuse, Christopher Steele & his phony and corrupt Dossier, the Clinton Foundation, illegal surveillance of Trump Campaign, Russian collusion by Dems — and so much more”.
If the names McCabe, Strzok, Page and Ohr mean nothing to you, you haven’t been watching nearly enough Fox News. Andrew McCabe was — until he was sacked in March for allegedly leaking information to the media — the deputy director of the FBI. Peter Strzok and Lisa Page were the romantically entangled FBI agent and lawyer respectively whose pre-election tweets included a pledge to “stop” Trump becoming president. Bruce Ohr was, until late last year, an associate deputy attorney-general; his wife, Nellie, worked for Fusion GPS, a research and intelligence firm, where she collaborated with former MI6 officer Christopher Steele on the notorious anti-Trump dossier.
Had Clinton become president, Trump TV would be vying with Fox to convince viewers that all these individuals were part of a deep state conspiracy to rig the election against the Republican candidate. I have little doubt that the House Republicans would have begun impeachment proceedings against Clinton soon after her inauguration.
America can seem like a madhouse these days, but I am not sure it would be much less mad if Clinton had won. It might even be madder. After all, Trump’s victory was a cathartic moment for the millions of people deeply disaffected with the political establishment personified by the Clintons. They are now living through the slow, creeping disillusionment that nearly always follows a populist victory. If there had been no catharsis, think how readily they would have accepted the rigged election story. Think how much more toxic the political atmosphere might be.
Yet the argument “Clinton would have been as bad, or worse” doesn’t get us far. It is intriguing to contemplate that parallel universe in which she’s the one facing impeachment, but it doesn’t tell us what will happen next in this world where Trump is the one on the hook.
I am not a lawyer. On the other hand, Michael Cohen is — or was — a lawyer. It’s a devalued currency these days. Anyway, no one can say definitively if the action of which Trump was accused by his former attorney last week qualifies as a high crime. Alan Dershowitz — the brilliant law professor who has dismayed many of his Martha’s Vineyard neighbours by sticking up for Trump — says there’s no crime at all “if, as a candidate, [Trump] contributes to his own campaign” by giving hush money to Stormy Daniels.
So maybe it wasn’t a high crime, but it was certainly pretty low conduct on Trump’s part to pay off his porn-star former mistress during an election and disguise the payment as a tax-deductible business expense. In any case, Cohen’s lawyer said last week his client has more dirt to dish; dirt that is supposedly relevant to Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russia’s meddling in the election.
Whatever the charges against Trump, of course, the question of whether or not he is impeached lies in the realm of politics more than the realm of law. It depends on whether the Democrats win back the House of Representatives in November. It depends on whether their leaders in Congress decide to go for impeachment. As a profession, journalists would like nothing more than to re-enact the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon. But Watergate would’ve been slightly easier to replay with Clinton as president because, in that parallel universe, the opposing party would control both House and Senate. Even so, getting a two-thirds majority in the Senate seems unattainable by either party in our time. That means any impeachment of Trump is much more likely to lead to a rerun of Bill Clinton’s failed impeachment than to a Nixon-style resignation.
Two variables in the coming months will be Trump himself and Republican voters. The president is a reckless man who has repeatedly made matters worse for himself. The denouement of his presidency may resemble a gangster film in which the bloodshed escalates exponentially as the forces of law close in and the goodfellas lose their heads.
The other key question is whether or not Republican voters will stick with Trump through thick and thin, regardless of what is revealed about his conduct and character. The author and journalist Salena Zito has been far and away the shrewdest observer of Trump supporters. Her view is that Trump’s base may cleave even more closely to their man if impeachment happens.
“These voters knew who Trump was going in,” she wrote last week. “They knew he was a thrice-married, Playmate-dating, Howard Stern regular who had the morals of an alley cat. They were willing to look past all of that because of how institutions had failed their communities for three consecutive presidencies. Right now [Trump] . . . is all that stands between them and handing the keys to Washington back over to the people inside Washington.”
There are, to repeat, other universes.
Somewhere out there, no doubt, a parallel universe exists where the American colonies did not revolt against Britain and what we call today the United States is more like south Canada. In that universe Americans have the same constitutional arrangements as Canadians and Australians — a system in which prime ministers have to be party leaders and their powers are more circumscribed than a US president’s.
There are of course populists in that other world, just as there are populists in Canada and Australia today, but no one as powerful as Trump. Instead, I can report, Paul Ryan has just been forced to step down as “prime minister”. Boring, I know. So count yourself lucky to be living in much the most interesting of all the possible universes.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
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