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(1/2) America at War... with the World and Itself
Over the last month, the single question that readers have most often asked of me—and this is in explicit reference to my recent book—is whether I think the current Fourth Turning will climax around internal or external conflict. In Chapter 7 of The Fourth Turning Is Here, these scenarios appear under the rubric of “Civil War” versus “Great Power War.” Looking at the historical track record, I emphasized that both threats typically overlap and rise together over the course of the Fourth Turning and that we often have few clues about which way events will fall until the climax or Ekpyrosis is near.
Look around at the events of the last four or five weeks. They point toward just this pattern. External or internal? I think the risks of each have risen pretty much in tandem, like two racehorses accelerating while pulling out of the far bend.
Let’s look first at what’s happening in the world.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the world took a big step toward its current polarization into Western and anti-Western camps. In the wake of that invasion, four dictatorships that previously had only casual ties with each other—Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea—gathered together into something close to an axis of mutual cooperation and support, dedicated to rallying other nations with grievances against America and its allies.
With the Hamas attack on Israel last month (on October 7, 2023), the world took a further big step in the same direction. The Israel-Hamas war has many losers: It will result in misery and death for thousands of Israelis and Palestinians; it will result in the destruction of most Hamas leaders and (likely) exile for the rest; it will result in renewed instability for the unstable pro-Western monarchs and autocrats who rule the Arab world. But it also has many winners, first and foremost Iran, who stands to win no matter what happens to Hamas. By daring to take action, Iran has inspired its proxy allies throughout the Mideast, from the Houthis in Yemen to Hezbollah in Lebanon. By rousing the Arab street, it has thrust a giant wedge between America and the conservative Arab states that had so recently been gravitating toward an alliance with Israel. And by glorying in Hamas’s bloody massacre, it humiliated the Biden administration, which had been laboring for years to buy Iranian goodwill.
The good news for Iran, moreover, has been rippling outward into yet more welcome developments within the broader anti-Western camp. With Putin and Xi embracing Hamas delegates in Beijing and Moscow, Russia and China are now using the Palestinian cause to open up a whole new anticolonial front against America in the Mideast and Africa. And maybe even further, among Muslim suburbs in Western Europe or even among Ivy League American campuses. Relieved that the Western spotlight has moved away from Ukraine and Taiwan, both leaders are amping up antisemitic social media campaigns at home while getting back to work supporting anti-Western insurgents in the Sahel or harassing pro-Western governments just beyond the second island chain.
Back just before the pandemic when the West waged war against ISIS—it seems so long ago!—both Putin and Xi still lent the Western cause at least nominal support. They did so, perhaps, for no other reason than to tell America to mind its own business when they brutally suppressed their own terrorists (Chechens or Uyghurs). No longer. The pretense of universal standards of conduct that transcend the divide between West and anti-West is rapidly disappearing altogether.
As nations increasingly sort themselves into one or another of these two camps, we may expect, as happened during the 1930s, that it will become ever harder to remain uncommitted. Like wavering magnets, heretofore neutral nations may have no other choice but to flip one way or the other. In the wake of the Israel-Hamas war, the direction of two middling powers will be of special interest: Turkey (which under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears to be pulling toward Hamas) and India (which under Narendra Modi appears to be pulling toward Israel).
OK, so much for the global outlook. Now let’s look at what’s happening at home.
We have a new Speaker of the House. Mike Johnson, a man almost no American has ever heard of, is now third in line to the presidency. If you want to know what he thinks about any issue—like, say, aid to Ukraine or Social Security—he tells us to read the Bible. Not that what he thinks really matters. Like one of those soldier-emperors of 3rd-century Rome who are “acclaimed” by their troops but who could be summarily cut down if he doesn’t do their bidding, Johnson’s leadership authority hangs by a thread. He has no authority of his own. Wasting a week treading water in pointless debates over doomed appropriation bills, Johnson weakly declared over the weekend that he would soon propose a CR of the type that dozens of GOP members have already sworn they would never support.
The Speaker has frozen aid to Israel by attaching it to a bill defunding the IRS, and he has stayed mum on any aid to Ukraine—not even offering a suggestion to NATO or Poland about what they should do once Putin reaches the Carpathian Mountains. He has instead allowed free rein to hours of shouting, swearing, and weeping over an (ultimately successful) GOP measure to censure Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) for congratulating Hamas. The House Democrats, it seems, are riven by their own addled radicals, those who dream of Palestinian statemen like Yahya Sinwar, the Butcher of Khan Yunis, presiding over a peaceable kingdom “from the river to the sea.”
By degrees, America’s two political parties, having nothing to say to each other, are turning the House of Representatives into a circus spectacle for their own tribal supporters. Even if the general public has little desire to watch, it has no choice but to pay attention, since the GOP at this point can only fund the government for weeks or months at a time. While the Democrats believe that all this permanent-emergency chaos will rebound badly for the GOP in 2024, I am not so sure. The public may instead see it as one more sign of Biden’s incompetent leadership, unable to take control of a nation at war with itself.
Donald Trump, who obviously favors the war narrative, is doing his best on social media to egg on the mayhem—not just because it’s his best get-out-of-jail-free card, but also because it sets him up next fall as the longed-for restorer of order and authority. In 2023, Trump may be the suffering Christ, taking on the lashes of Judge Tanya Chutkan so we need not bear them. But in 2024, he is prepping to reappear as the triumphant Christ, parading back into Washington in a splendorous Parousia.
Evidence that Trump may know what he’s doing appeared last week in the New York Times-Siena College poll of six battleground states (NV, GA, AZ, MI, PA, and WI), which Monday morning hit blue-zone MSM readers like a bucket of ice water. Bottom line: When asked who they would vote for if the election were held today, voters preferred Trump over Biden by 5 percentage points in these six states. Biden is ahead in only one (WI) and only by 2 percentage points. 71% of voters say that Biden is “too old” to be president, including 54% of his supporters. Only 39% say that about Trump, including only 19% of his supporters.
For Democrats, it gets worse. The only issue in which Biden has a substantial (9-point) lead is abortion. On preserving democracy, Biden is ahead by only 3 points. Everything else leans toward Trump: national security by 12 points; Israel-Hamas by 11 points; immigration by 12 points; and the economy by a massive 22 points (59% to 37%). Bidenomics? Trump is ahead on the economy with both genders and with every age group and education and income level. What’s more, twice as many voters say economic issues would determine their vote compared with social issues like abortion. Among these “economic” voters, Trump is favored by a landslide, 60% to 32%.
When the pollsters compared voters’ current preferences to how they voted in 2020, the answers showed that the Democrats’ much-vaunted demographic momentum has lurched into reverse gear. Trump got his biggest gains among minorities and the young. Nonwhites under age 45, for instance, moved by an astounding 33 percentage points from Biden to Trump. Whites under age 45 moved by 13 percentage points in the same direction and now favor Trump by 5 points. All voters under age 30 said they voted for Biden in 2020 by 23 points; today they say they would vote for him by only one point.
What’s triggering the youth move to Trump? Overwhelmingly, the economy. The survey found that only 6% of under-30 voters say the economy is “good”; 59% say it is “poor.” Among 65+ adults, these shares are 27% and 43%, respectively. What’s more, today’s young people are much more focused on the economy than older people. When given a choice between a president who can “manage the economy” or “protect and preserve American culture and the American way of life,” two-thirds of Millennials choose the former; two-thirds of Boomers choose the latter.
Let me add the kicker here. These voters’ disaffection with their country’s direction, especially its economic direction, comes at a time when unemployment remains near record lows (3.9%) and consumer demand is amped up by record fiscal steroids (with the federal deficit running at almost 6% of GDP over the last four quarters). Imagine how voters will feel if we’re in a recession by next spring or summer? And if, with usual sense of deft timing, Congress chooses this moment to shut down deficit spending? I’m assuming, of course, that Chairman Powell has meanwhile plugged his ears and remains bound to the Fed’s mast. Such questions, I think, answer themselves.
Later in the week, Democrats consoled themselves with several high-profile victories in the off-year 2023 state elections. But I doubt there’s a whole lot of consolation to be found here. Most of these victories can be attributed to the obvious unpopularity of the GOP’s abortion ban proposals. (As demonstrated in the NYT-Siena poll, abortion remains the lone issue on which voters decidedly prefer Biden.) They also depended upon very low turnout rates among educated single-issue voters who could pull the lever for local candidates who never once had to utter the word “Biden.” Yes, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin lost control of his House of Delegates and failed to gain control of his Senate in several squeaker-close districts. But the Virginia GOP still managed to win in the vast majority of districts that went for Biden three years ago. Remember: Biden beat Trump in Virginia by 10 percentage points in 2020; no one is predicting a similar outcome in 2024.
A better argument for the Democrats is that a lot can happen over the next year, which is why year-ahead election polls are so often misleading. (Some experts claim their predictive value, over the postwar era, is roughly nil.) Indeed, one could argue that dramatic change is especially likely in the months to come—given the unpopularity of the two candidates combined with Biden’s frailness and Trump’s legal jeopardy. While Trump, playing the Joker, sees opportunity in chaos, his GOP challengers clearly hope the chaos consumes him—which is why they remain in the race. Democratic Party leaders, meanwhile, want to cork the bottle on any third-party candidacy, fearing a massive exodus of their voters to anyone else on offer. Their hope is simple: That. Nothing. Changes.
Joe Manchin’s announcement that he will not run again for the Senate, for example, alarmed Democrats for two reasons: first, that he will allow the GOP to take his WV seat; and second, that he may want to run at the top of an independent presidential ticket, perhaps under the No Labels label, and strip away Biden’s (remaining) working-class supporters. Or consider this finding from the NYT-Siena poll. When voters were offered a three-way contest between Biden, Trump, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., 24% of voters opted for the guy with the blue-zone name and the red-zone conspiracy paranoia. Amazingly, though, Kennedy stole almost as many votes from Biden as from Trump. (Final tally: Biden 33%, Trump 35%, Kennedy 24%.) Another NYT-Siena scenario boded well for Nikki Haley, in the event that something untoward happens to Trump and she is able to run straight up against Biden. In the six toss-up states, Haley beats Biden by 8 percentage points, three more than Trump’s margin.
My take on all these possibilities? Yes, big and unexpected events may happen over the next year. New leaders may appear and others disappear. But let’s not imagine that any of this will alter the fear-driven tribal partisanship that now underlies American politics. Each tribe congregates around a very specific emotional brand and worldview, and it mobilizes its supporters by summoning them to battle against a similarly specific (and odious) view of the Other. Keep this in mind. It’s the logic of the tribe that selects the options available to any leader, not vice versa.
Why else have we seen so little change in leadership messaging over the last three years? Biden had to assume the role of the semi-woke antifa crusader against the aspiring “semi-fascist” dictator, a role for which (IMO) he was never temperamentally suited. Imagine any younger replacement for Biden. In order to succeed, he or she—let’s say, Gavin Newsom—would have to be a younger, higher-voltage version of the same. Ditto for a new figure at the head of the GOP. If you’re trying to picture Nikki Haley doing her best to get the adrenaline pumping in red-zone America, you’d better picture someone rather different than the polite and thoughtful campaigner we’ve recently seen in the TV debates.
I’m not denying, of course, that a good or bad leader can make the difference between an election victory or defeat. What I am saying is that the path open to any leader, good or bad, is constrained by the mood of the nation and the emotional energy of his or her supporters. And right now this mood is profoundly pessimistic and this energy is a partisanship so desperate and Manichaean that it could easily break the nation apart.
Am I painting too dark a picture of where America finds itself right now? I don't think so. If recent polling is any indication, the reality of how voters are feeling may be even worse.
Thanks for reading. Next week: Part 2, where I’ll take you through just what the American public is thinking.
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