Defeating Trump for the Republican Nomination.

            Frank Luntz is an important, sometimes controversial Republican pollster and focus group leader.[1]  Recently, he shared his thoughts on a post-Trump Republican presidential candidate.[2]    

Luntz offers a bald assessment of elements of the American political scene.  On the one hand, “many Trump supporters” are people who were “knocked down, got back up and are now helping others to do the same.”  On the other hand, there is the country’s political elite: “politicians, political hacks, lobbyists, and out-of-touch elites who have ignored, forgotten and betrayed the people they represent.” Trump was originally “elected to destroy” this existing political order.  Now, in the eyes of this large minority of the core Trump constituency, he has become part of the problem. 

            According to Luntz, about a third of Trump voters “prioritize the character of the country and the people who run it.”  Doubtless any Democrat will scoff at this statement.  However, these voters are estranged from Trump himself, but not from his policies. 

            How can Republican rivals win over these voters?  (No Democrat ever will, although a bunch of the Trump base voters are former Democrats.) 

First, the successful contestant will be someone “who champions Mr. Trump’s agenda but with decency, civility, and a commitment to personal responsibility and accountability.”  People reject President Trump’s boorish, bullying behavior even as they continue to support policies like actually confronting China.  During and after his presidency, Trump provided many examples of self-indulgence, irresponsibility, and hypocrisy.  Reminding voters of these faults, while celebrating the many real achievements of his administration[3] can win over voters. 

Second, a candidate should have some kind of track record of actually putting conservative policies into practice.  That argues for a governor, rather than a senator.  Luntz isn’t playing favorites here.  Nikki Haley, Asa Hutchinson, and Ron DeSantis all have this credential. 

Third, be aware that many Trump supporters are older people worried about the future of their children and grandchildren.  Candidates need to talk clearly about solving current problems with grave future implications.  Here, the national debt gets a lot more traction than does climate change. 

Fourth, a candidate will have to win over Republican-leaning independents, not drive them into the Democratic camp. 

Fifth, if candidates are seeking campaign endorsements, those endorsements should come from “the average farmer, small business owner and veteran.”  They most definitely should not come from the “famous and powerful.”  None of the Trump base respects these people.  (The same is probably true of many Democrats.) Nor should they, sad to say. 

[1] On Luntz, see: Frank Luntz – Wikipedia  For televised appearance where you can get a sense of his reasoning, see: Frank I. Luntz | 

[2] Frank Luntz, “How to Make Trump Go Away,” NYT, 10 April 2023. 

[3] Slamming tariffs on China, harassing its major corporations, recognizing that the long campaign to change North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons had failed, insisting upon the importance of mass illegal immigration, treating the NATO allies as the free-riders that they have long been, halting the flood of government by Executive orders, Executive agreements, and bureaucratic rule-writing, and launching “Operation Warp Speed” to rapidly produce Covid vaccines for those who wanted them.  You could watch “Dopesick” for insight into why some did not. 


            The once great Ottoman Empire went into a prolonged decline.  Rulers of peripheral territories attempted to make themselves functionally independent.  The most successful of these hustlers was Muhammad Ali, nominally the governor of Egypt.[1]  Among his other ventures, he launched an Egyptian conquest of the neighboring Muslim states south along the Nile.  That territory is called Sudan.  After his death, this “khedivate” went into decline, the British occupied Egypt to safeguard their own interest in the Suez Canal,[2] and an Islamist rebellion in Sudan got out of hand (from the Anglo-Egyptian perspective).[3]  Afterward, things cooked along very unhappily until Britain’s retreat from empire after the Second World War.  Over Egyptian protests, Sudan got its independence in 1956. 

            Independent Sudan has not had a happy history.  For one thing, hardly anyone had any notion of “democracy.”  There have been half a dozen military coups d’etat, but the reality is that two dictators ruled the country, one from 1969 to 1985 and the other from 1989 to 2019.  Army officers have entrenched themselves as the key government institution, raking in wealth along the way.  They aren’t much inclined to surrender their advantages.  Under external pressure they have been willing to make occasional cosmetic gestures toward a “democratic transition.” 

For another thing, British rule had papered over the conflicts between Arabs and non-Arabs, Muslims and non-Muslims, Arab Muslims dominated the North, non-Arabs occupied the western territory of Darfur, and the South is peopled by Christians and Animists.  Between 1955 and 1972, and then again between 1983 and 2005, civil war pitted North against South.  Overlapping this struggle, between 2004 and—to be honest—the present, the Khartoum government has waged war in the western territory of Darfur.  The North-South war ended with the creation of the new country of South Sudan in 2011.  Both conflicts were deadly in an extreme.  Huge numbers of refugees fled the conflict. 

Under very heavy pressure, the Muslim military leaders agreed to surrender territory to rebels as part of “peace processes.”  As is the case with “democratic transition,” the soldiers don’ttake these commitments seriously over the long run.  In both cases, they are just waiting for some other crisis in some other far-away place to divert the attention of foreign meddlers. 

At the end of 2018, an internal economic crisis led to huge demonstrations in the streets of Khartoum.  In April 2019, the soldiers tossed overboard the long-ruling dictator, Omar al-Bashir; in Summer 2019, they struck a deal with civilian opponents of the government.  Since then, Western governments, especially the United States, have been supporting a democratic transition.  Earlier in April 2023, two different factions of the soldiers fell out over who would actually rule. 

Is “Democracy” something that can be established in any culture?[4] The answer to that question rests with the choices of the “men with guns.”  Whether Washington likes it or not. 

[1] On this fascinating, complicated man, see: Muhammad Ali Pasha – Wikipedia 

[2] On their other activities, see: The Perils of Adventure 2 | waroftheworldblog 

[3] The movie “Khartoum” (dir. Basil Dearden, 1966) manages to make the whole thing dull.  The several versions of “The Four Feathers: (dir. Zoltan Korda, 1939; dir. Shekhar Kapur, 2002) are rather better movies without throwing more light on the subject.  See Rudyard Kipling, “Fuzzy Wuzzy.”  Fuzzy-Wuzzy by Rudyard Kipling (

[4] Walter Russell Mead, “In Sudan, Another ‘Democracy’ Push Fails,” WSJ, 25 April 2023, is seething. 


            What is an “urban” area?  The U.S. Census Bureau defines an “urban” area as either “Urban” (with a population of at least 50,000 people) or as an “Urban-Cluster” (with a population of 2,000—49,999).  The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) labels anything between 10,000 and 49,999 people as Micro-Urban, but categorizes it as rural.  What then is a “rural” area?  Any place with fewer than 2,000 to 10,000 people, depending on the definition used.[1]  So, not just wheat fields as far as the eye can see.  Small towns and small cities as well. 

As late as the 1990s, rural and urban voting patterns in presidential elections were pretty close.  No more.  More and more, rural areas have been voting Republican and many urban areas have been voting Democratic.  In 2020, the urban-Democratic versus rural Republican gap reached 15 percent in the Northeast, 18 percent in the South, 20 percent in the West, and 22 percent in the Midwest.[2]    

Why did this divergence occur?  According to one interpretation, the decline in industry hit big cities first.  They adapted as best they could, often shifting their economic base to newly-developing sectors of the economy.  From 2000 on, the manufacturing decline hit small towns and small cities.  Very often, these places were in some sense “company towns.”  The decline of Bethlehem Steel devastated the whole Lehigh Valley.  They had a very difficult time adapting to rapid change.  The contrast is highlighted by the different rates of job creation since 2000 in urban versus rural areas.  Virtually all (94 percent) of the new jobs created have been in urban areas; virtually none (6 percent) has been in rural areas.  With no jobs in home towns, many kids got BAs and moved to big cities.  As a result, some forty-one percent of rural counties have suffered population declines. 

Rural areas became cultural “backwaters” as well as economic ones.  That is, the people often clung to traditional values and political positions.  They didn’t have all sorts of new opportunities popping up before their very eyes.  Nothing to encourage changing their thinking.  Meanwhile, urban areas often moved on to new positions.  Those new positions held no appeal for those left behind.  Many of them seem to have responded by wanting to be left alone as well. 

That hasn’t happened.  Instead, urban Democrats have sought to nationalize their policy preferences.  Climate-change, education, immigration, guns, crime policy, religion, abortion, gender identity, and racial policies all seemed—and seem today–like they are being crammed down the throats of rural voters.  

Those voters are rebelling against what they see as an attack on themselves.  In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency on a platform of enraging liberal elites as much as anything else.  In 2020, Trump won 43 percent of the urban vote and 63 percent of the rural vote.  This rebellion isn’t just ignorance, racism and resentment, much as Democrats want to believe.  There is an element of Psychology that deals with “Self-Determination Theory” (SDT).  According to one proponent of SDT, “people need to experience themselves as the causal source and origin of their behavior rather than feeling controlled and determined by external forces.”[3] 

[1] Federal Office of Rural Health Policy (FORHP) Data Files | HRSA    

[2] William Galston, “What Drives Political Polarization?” WSJ, 19 April 2023. 

[3] Kenneth M. Sheldon, Freely Determined: What the New Psychology of the Self Teaches Us About How to Live (2022), quoted by Julian Baggini, WSJ, 5 December 2022.  This is a welcome insight, although not a new one. 

Talk is Cheap and You Get What You Pay For.

            The Cold War formed the long, final phase of a struggle against aggressive tyrannies that ran from 1914 to 1990.   In 1990 the United States and the other Western democracies emerged triumphant from the Cold War with the Soviet Union.  The long era of wars and rumors of wars exerted a profound effect on the societies involved.  In the United States it helped create a national-security state that absorbed an uncommon share of national resources.  It also defined American foreign policy as a grand, foggy abstraction: the defense and promotion of Democracy.  In the aftermath of the victory parades, the question arose of what to do with victory? 

            One school of thought urged a redirection of resources to address pressing domestic problems.  It might be thought of as “Nation-Building at Home.”  A rival school of thought urged the promotion of Democracy in the remaining benighted parts of the world.  This might be thought of as “Finish the Job.”  One way of reconciling the rivals lay in shifting resources away from the national-security state toward domestic needs, on the one hand, and emphasizing the rhetorical promotion of democracy, backed by the use of targeted economic sanctions. 

            In 1975, Defense spending equaled about 5.75 percent of GDP during the Carter Administration.  It rose as high as 7 percent of GDP during the Reagan Administration; fell to about 3.5 percent during the Clinton Administration; rose to about 5 percent of GDP in the George W. Bush Administration, and declined to about 3.75 percent of GDP by 2020.[1]  It has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride, with upsurges during the final phase of the struggle against the “Evil Empire” and the “War on Terror.”  These were interspersed with periods of claiming a “peace dividend.”  The rhetorical promotion of democracy has been exemplified by the work of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).[2]  Russia, China, India, Venezuela, Iran, Egypt, Thailand, and Malaysia have all objected to or criticized the NED for being, as one critic phrased it, a “CIA soft power front” organization.  More directly, the Obama Administration supported the “Arab Spring” and the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak with a lot of talk, some of it behind the scenes.  The United States has also deployed targeted economic sanctions, to no obvious great effect.[3] 

            There are variations to this basic pattern.  The Bush II Administration’s invasion of Iraq and the Obama Administration’s bombing Libyan dictator Muamar Khadafy out of power constituted attempts to promote democracy by the more traditional avenue of military force.[4]  Neither experience had a happy outcome.  President Biden’s vilification of the villainous Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has not been accompanied by economic sanctions.  That’s because the Saudis are better positioned to impose economic sanctions on the United States than reverse. 

            Has the rhetorical approach worked?  In the eyes of some it has only alienated allies needed by the United States, regardless of their political system.  “What we get from China is an airport.  What we get from the United States is a lecture.”[5] 

            But we’ve always been preachy.  People put up with it because we were also scary. 

[1] See: Budget Basics: National Defense ( 

[2] See: National Endowment for Democracy – Wikipedia 

[3] See: United States sanctions – Wikipedia 

[4] Well, it worked with Germany and Japan. 

[5] Quoted in Walter Russell Mead, “Scolding Isn’t a Foreign Policy,” WSJ, 19 April 2023. 

Goring the Ox.

            The Democrats created a “brand” based on Tax–Spend–Elect.  Eventually, the Republicans created their own “brand” based on Tax-cut—Spend—Elect.  That is one of the dynamic forces at work on American public finance.  A second dynamic force is the movement of the Baby Boom from the work force into retirement age.  That movement increases the number of people using Social Security and Medicare.[1] 

            In 2000, when Bill Clinton left the White House, these factors had not gotten out of hand.  At that point, government debt amounted to 32.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  It stayed pretty much at this level until the onset of the financial crisis and the “Great Recession.”  By late 2009, the debt amounted to 52.3 percent of GDP.[2]  Ten years on, after the Obama Administration and the first half of the first Trump Administration, the ratio of debt to GDP reached 79.2 percent in 2019.  Then, during 2020, 2021, and 2022, the response to Covid, drove the debt up to 97 percent of GDP. 

            Further movement along this trajectory is anticipated by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in its projections for 2022-2033.  This appears int three different ways.  First, the CBO projects that the debt itself will rise from $24.3 trillion to $46.4 trillion.  That is, the debt will almost double in ten years.  Second, the debt-to-GDP ratio will rise from 97 percent to 118 percent.  Third, annual interest payments on the debt will rise from $475 billion to $1.4 trillion. 

            On the one hand, the United States has entered what looks to be a period of higher interest rates.  Partly, this stems from the fight against inflation.  The duration of that period is uncertain.  On the other hand, sustaining a large debt will require the government to make sure that there are buyers for its bonds.  This means offering higher interest rates.  Higher rates, in turn, tend to slow down the economy. 

“There’s evidence that the U.S. government has reached” [the point at which] “debt restricts [its] choices and threatens [its] solvency.”[3]  What is to be done?  Recommended solutions abound.  Among them is the following. 

The parties need to agree to hold the debt-to-GDP ratio to the current level (97 percent) instead of allowing it to rise to 118 percent.  This will save about a third of the projected increase in the debt.  But what to cut to hit this target? 

Asked why he robbed banks, Willy Sutton said “That’s where the money is.”  Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and Defense amount to about two-thirds of federal spending.  That’s where the money is.  Again, the parties would need to agree.  But the proposed solution says nothing about Defense or Medicare and Medicaid.  It focuses on Social Security. 

Ideally, until it’s your ox or my ox that is getting gored, the cuts should not be distributed symmetrically between all income.  Pretty much leave the lower income groups alone while laying more of the burden on the upper income groups.  Again, the parties would have to agree. 

The proposal illustrates the complexity—and the political risks–of the task before us. 

[1] Eventually, all the geezers will croak and be succeeded by a series of numerically smaller generations.  Being among the Baby Boomers myself, I tend to forget the exact labels and definitions of those generations. 

[2] This wasn’t especially threatening.  The debt-to-GDP ratio had been at 46.8 percent.  It was then pushed down to 32 percent by four successive years of budget surpluses. 

[3] William Galston, “How the U.S. Can Prevent a Debt Spiral,” WSJ, 22 February 2023. 

Fascism For and Against.

            In the wake of the First World War, “Fascism” appeared to be a new political form on the march toward power.  It challenged both the decrepit Liberalism of the Nineteenth Century and a revolutionary Bolshevism.  Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party came to power in Italy in 1922.[1]  Copy-cat movements appeared in many other European countries.[2]  For the most part, these movements arose in backward countries that emerged from of the collapse of the great empires at the end of the First World War.  Often, their rise met their limits in the willingness–eagerness in some cases–of the traditional forces of order to shoot people who clamored too loudly.[3] 

Then came the Great Depression.  The political systems of a host of countries ground to a halt over “distributive contests”: cut taxes or raise taxes, cut public spending or raise public spending, and for whose benefit?  Fascist movements arose or gained numbers in Belgium, Ireland, Spain, France and Britain.  Most importantly, Germany’s democratic Weimar Republic collapsed and Adolf Hitler came to power.  In the United States, some people on the right saw the New Deal’s inflationary monetary policy, the elaboration of government controls on business, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “cult of personality” as steps toward an American fascism.  On the left, many people saw the populist campaigns of the “demagogues” Hughie Long[4] and Father Coughlin as fascist threats to democracy.  Happily, by 1945, such fears had passed.  Fascism had been destroyed and discredited. 

Yet the idea didn’t disappear.  Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men (1947) and the movie of the same title (dir. Robert Rossen, 1949) were based on Long as a demagogic threat to democracy.  Long also partly inspired “A Face in the Crowd” (dir. Elia Kazan, 1957).  It is often discussed as an examination of the populist demagogue who is contemptuous of his followers.  A very different approach came in the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, Seven Days in May (1962) and the film of the same title (dir. John Frankenheimer, 1964).  Here the danger came from right-wing military officers opposed to arms control.     

Since the 1960s. the term Fascism became “a political expletive.” not an “investigative concept.”  In the Sixties it was a rhetorical rock thrown at Republicans and the police.  In the early 21st Century, the American right used it to describe a changed liberalism.[5]  The election of Donald Trump, well ahead of any policies he pursued, immediately aroused denunciations of Fascism from the left.[6]  Despite 6 January, American democracy remains strong—if stalled. 

[1] The nature of Mussolini’s grip on power was much misunderstood in Western democracies at the time.  Fundamentally, he had compromised with powerful conservative institutions: the army, industrialists, great landowners, and the monarchy.  Mussolini got the trappings of power and the opportunity to build something more, while conservatives got a suppression of the Left.  See: R.J.B. Bosworth, The Italian Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives in the Interpretation of Mussolini and Fascism (1998). 

[2] F.L. Carsten, The Rise of Fascism (1969) is a good guide to developments as understood by historians before the subject became over-theorized. 

[3] See: on Rumania Iron Guard – Wikipedia; on Bulgaria History of Bulgaria (1878–1946) – Wikipedia; on Weimar Germany’s “Beer Hall Putsch” Beer Hall Putsch – Wikipedia 

[4] See Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen here (1936), a sort of instant-book intended to help derail Long’s pursuit of the presidency.  Carl Weiss got there first. 

[5] See, for example, Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (2008). 

[6] Bruce Kuklick, Fascism Comes to America: A Century of Obsession in Politics and Culture (2022). 

Nuclear Proliferation.

            The First Nuclear Arms Race pitted the United States and Britain against Nazi Germany.  The Second Nuclear Arms Race pitted the United States against the Soviet Union.  After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States sponsored efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. 

International rivalries made this non-proliferation regime a dud.  Britain, France, China, and Israel had all developed nuclear weapons before the UN-sponsored Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970.  Subsequently, India, Pakistan, and North Korea developed their own weapons.  There the spread settled down.  The cost of developing nuclear weapons combined with a reasonably stable international order to limit the further pursuit of nuclear weapons. 

            One moment of danger appeared with the break-up of the Soviet Union.  The Clinton Administration urged the government of a newly-independent Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to surrender their mostly-notional claim on the legacy Soviet nuclear weapons on their soil.  Today Ukraine may be wishing it had struggled to hold onto those weapons. 

            A quarter of a century on, the skies are darkening once again.  Now regional conflicts are developing a nuclear component.  In the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in a long-running conflict, mostly fought through proxies.  Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons unsettled, then alarmed the Saudis.  Now Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates have begun the familiar process of seeking to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, like for energy when the oil runs out.[1]  Turkey may be unwilling to be the lone significant state in the Middle East without nuclear weapons, especially if Erdogan remains in power. 

In the Far East, South Korea may be considering the possibility of creating its own nuclear deterrent to fend off North Korea.  It’s hard to imagine the Japanese following the same path because that they’ve been atom-bombed before.  If non-proliferation and the American nuclear “umbrella” could prevent it happening a second time, great.  But what if those traditional defenses come into doubt? 

Among American conservatives, the Obama Administration is sometimes made the goat for the breakdown of non-proliferation.[2]  Obama’s feeble response to the Russian seizure of Ukrainian territory in 2014 and his determined support of an agreement that only slowed, but did not stop, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons taught other countries that American promises now mean little.  This seems unfair.  The hallmark of American diplomacy since Bill Clinton got the keys to the White House from George H.W. Bush has been misjudgments and empty promises.  These left the world a worse place and each succeeding administration in a deeper hole.  It’s easy to take shots at President Obama and his foolish Secretaries of State.  They aren’t the sole culprits. 

The grimmest thing is that some of leaders in these countries may not be steeped in the thinking about nuclear war that has shaped nuclear weapons policy and crisis diplomacy in “old” nuclear countries.  They may see the weapons not only as status symbols or ultimate deterrents.  Actually using the weapons may not be unthinkable for every decision-maker in every country. 

[1] The real “tell” will be clandestine contacts between Saudi Arabia (which has oil and wants nuclear technology) and North Korea or Pakistan (both of which need oil and have trafficked nuclear technology). 

[2] Walter Russell Mead, “How Obama Killed Nuclear Nonproliferation,” WSJ, 11 April 2023. 

The Tao of George Best.

The great—and highly-paid–soccer-player George Best explained his post-career bankruptcy: “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.” 

The final years to the 1990s were good years for American public finance: four consecutive annual budget surpluses and a total debt of about $5.7 trillion.  Over the course of the next two decades, the debt rose above the $25 trillion mark.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the debt will rise by more than $20 trillion in the next decade.  The longer-run projections show things getting much worse.[1] 

One of the drivers in debt expansion in the first decades of this century came in low interest rates.  Keeping rates low formed a response to repeated major economic problems.  It also meant that the interest that the government has to pay to much of the debt is cheap.  That policy came to an end when the Federal Reserve Bank began raising interest rates to fight inflation.  The smart money once expected low interest rates to go on forever; now the smart money seems to think that high interest rates are here to stay for the foreseeable future. 

More troubling is the change in the ability of the United States to pay the debt, which consists of both principal and interest).  During the expansion so far, from c. 2000 to c. 2020, the ratio of debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) tripled to 98 percent.  Over the next decade that ratio is projected to rise to 118 percent.  That is, the debt will expand at a faster rate than will the economy.  “The longer-term projections show a near-complete loss of control over fiscal policy [i.e. taxing and spending choices].” 

Americans and foreigners will go on buying American government debt (Treasury bonds, IOUs) so long as they think that they will get paid back.  If people start to think that they will not get paid back, then they will become reluctant to buy debt.  The price offered by the government will have to rise.  Other forms of spending will have to be sacrificed to stave off even the shadow of bankruptcy. 

The obvious solution is to stop the problem from getting worse immediately while we figure out a long-run solution.  That would suggest both tax increases and spending cuts. 

The Republican Party has made a fetish out of tax cuts.  It turns out that Democrats aren’t willing to roll-back most of those tax cuts when they get in office.  Democrats have built their “brand” on new and expanded-old government programs to address social problems.  In many cases, the benefits promised by the exponents of both sides have failed to materialize.  Reversing course is going to be painful—if it happens.  Democracy has been pretty good at distributing benefits.  It has seldom been good at distributing sacrifice.[2]  The Constitution may not be a “suicide pact,” but our current politics may well be such a pact. 

Obviously, the debt resembles climate change.  They are “primary” problems without painless solutions.  Transgender athletes, Donald Trump, and even guns are “secondary” issues. 

The questions are:

  1. Can we focus on the essentials? 
  2. Can we solve these problems without breaking democracy itself? 

[1] William Galston, “Ballooning National Debt Is a Rotten Legacy,” WSJ, 12 April 2023.  On Galston, see: William Galston – Wikipedia  It’s not like he is some kind of no-account. 

[2] The experiences of Britain and the United States during the Second World War are notable exceptions. 

My Weekly Reader 11 April 2023.

            Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) argues that there exists a long-running and “behind-the-scenes manipulation of our political and justice systems to capture our courts—especially the Supreme Court—as a way to control the future of our democracy.”[1] 

            According to Senator Whitehouse, the manipulation began with a private memo written for the Education Committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in August 1971.  The author was Lewis F. Powell, then a lawyer in private practice, but soon to become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).  Powell described American business and the free enterprise system as under heavy attack from a wide range of critics.  Business, Powell urged, had to defend itself and the larger system in which it operated against these attacks.[2]  Powell himself formed part of the majorities in two important decisions: Buckley v. Valeo (1976) and First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978).  The first decision relieved organizations that were independent of any particular candidate from the campaign finance rules.  The second decision granted corporations First Amendment speech rights.  These decisions allowed individuals and companies could join the political debate as if they were ordinary voters. 

It took a while, but by the late 1970s, people began to take Powell’s advice.  William Simon, Sr. had served as Treasury Secretary under Nixon and Ford.  “The experience of [Nixon’s] impeachment convinced him […] not that partisanship was necessarily poisonous, but that his opponents were far better at partisanship than his side was. […] Simon would spend the remainder of his life helping to redress the balance.”  In 1978, Simon and Irving Kristol founded The Institute For Education Affairs (IfEA).[3]  In 1979, IfEA funded the start of the Collegiate Network; in 1982, IfEA funded he initial conference of the Federalist Society.[4]  The former supports conservative alternative voices to mainstream college newspapers.  The latter seeks to develop a robust cadre of conservative lawyers and judges.  The Federalist Society’s goal has been described as “checking federal power, protecting individual liberty and interpreting the Constitution according to its original meaning.”[5]  The Federalist Society has come to be seen as an enormously influential shaper of legal thought in the United States and as a gate-keeper for Republican appointees to the federal bureaucracy and judiciary. 

            The Federalist Society has been remarkably successful at placing its members in influential positions.  Currently, Federalist Society members Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett serve as Associate Justices of the Supreme Court.  To belabor the obvious, that’s five of nine.  In the Citizens United decision (2010), the Supreme Court removed all restrictions on campaign spending for media by corporations, unions, and other associations. 

            This, then, is the “behind-the-scenes manipulation.”  Actually, it’s been out in the open all along and it represents a legitimate political position.  Fifty years on, it marks William Simon’s success in making Republicans better at partisanship than Democrats. 

[1] Quoted in Leslie Lenkowsky, “Yet Another Conspiracy Theory,” WSJ, 6 December 2022. 

[2] You can read the memo at The Memo ( 

[3] On Simon, see William E. Simon – Wikipedia; on Kristol, see Irving Kristol – Wikipedia 

[4] See: Collegiate Network – Wikipedia and Federalist Society – Wikipedia

[5] Federalist Society – Wikipedia 


            Victory in the Cold War left the United States as the sole remaining superpower.  The Western-led open world economy spread into much of the rest of the world.  Western countries claimed their peace dividend by reducing defense spending.  Yet not all were happy with the outcome.  Expanded international economic integration disrupted established industries in Western countries, even as they raised hundreds of millions of people elsewhere out of abject poverty.  Social division strained democratic politics, especially in the United States.  China, Russia, and Islamic radicals declined to be chained to the chariot of American-led “progress.”  They and others sought to increase their own power. 

Until recently, in these efforts they mostly had to contend with the rhetorical disdain of the West.  The leader of the pack, the United States, began to play a less influential role.  In large measure, this change in role can be blamed on the disastrous invasion of Iraq.  The decision to proceed with a “coalition of the willing,” rather than paying attention to what important international partners said by their refusal to participate; the gruesome civil war that the American invasion made possible; and the repercussions throughout the Middle East of the flunked war both diverted American attention from real issues and left the American people disgusted with international relations.  President Donald Trump’s then well-founded disdain for the Continental European allies, his hostility to Iranian adventurism, and his determination to coerce China alarmed both America’s foreign policy elite and many foreign leaders.  From both these adventures, the United States ended up in a very different place than had been the case at the end of the Cold War. 

            Now many in the West are truly alarmed.  In the absence of reliable American leadership, some of the traditional allies are “tightening their relations with the U.S., increasing their defense spending, and intensifying efforts to strengthen the network of alliances that underpin the world order.”[1]  What they are doing, really, is waiting to see if the Americans are going to shake it off and come back to the center of the ring for the next round. 

            What if the Americans don’t shake it off?  What if other countries value the American-created and American-led world order more highly than do the Americans themselves?  In that case, many countries will find themselves confronting a loose and temporary, but momentarily potent, coalition of predators.[2]  What then?  The Serpent Prince of Saudi Arabia seems to think that the question already has been answered.  President Joe Biden has failed to come up with any suitable response to Iran, so Saudi Arabia has been open to Xi Jinping mediating a truce for the moment in the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict, while also exerting pressure on the world oil market.[3]  He’s an early adopter of the post-American world.  Lots of people are not yet ready to make that jump, and don’t want that jump to become necessary.  Nevertheless, they are watching to see how it shakes out. 

            At the heart of this dilemma is a more fundamental question.  Is American weakness on the international scene only perceived or is it real?  Only Americans can answer that question. 

[1] Walter Russell Mead, “America Shrugs, and the World Makes Plans,” WSJ, 28 March 2023.

[2] For a historian, there are inescapable questions about parallels to the period between the two World Wars.  Analogical thinking can be dangerous.  You have to pick the right analogy, not just the one at hand. 

[3] Which doesn’t do any good for any democratic politician in any country.