By Charlie Johnston
I was deeply heartened by the election results yesterday. I can now amend my promise that I would retreat into silence if Barack Obama peacefully transferred power to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump on January 20. Now it only applies if Obama peacefully transfers power to Trump on that day. Should that happen, it would be a very happy retreat on my part. I have not suddenly become a great enthusiast for Trump, though I did warm up to him in the waning weeks of this election. He came up with the most pro-life position statement of any Republican nominee in my lifetime. He may freely insult people while he is president, but he won’t attack their liberty or try to fine or jail them for dissent. He believes in American exceptionalism. He could represent a return to normalcy – a president who has flaws and virtues, but who is not given to pseudo-intellectual preening. When he preens, he just preens.
Hillary Clinton represented a unique threat to the U.S. – a fulfillment of the disorders brought on by Obama’s narcissistic self-regard, a fulfillment that would have ended any hope that the U.S. could right itself. She was an aggressive threat to the rule of law, the faith, foundational freedoms and any hope of a Culture of Life. I am thankful that Americans rejected what would have been the decisive repudiation of the rule of law by electing her, though disturbed that so many Americans remain so cavalierly uninterested in the very principles that made us a light to the world.
Two years ago, many people were deeply heartened by the Republicans’ landslide victory in the mid-term elections. A few suggested that this proved that my overheated concerns had been answered by that election and all would be sweetness and light. I wrote the column reprinted below, expressing my conviction that the election of a near veto-proof Congress would change nothing. We still were headed into a terrible Storm.
I remain convinced that this election will not stop the crash, but for different reasons than two years ago. As I mentioned, I have warmed up to Trump in the last few months. I played a very peripheral role in providing some briefing points at the request of someone close to him on a particular issue last summer. To my pleasant surprise, once Trump came on board with the policy, he developed a very clear-eyed understanding and commitment to it. I think he has a good learning curve, is taking this very seriously, and wants to be a solid leader. I think he would govern largely as he has telegraphed – and that to change his mind you would need to convince him of the wisdom of your position, not some cheap effort to show how it is to his advantage. Sometimes I would agree with him, sometimes disagree – but I think he would govern as a traditional American, with respect for all.
My doubts lie with the anti-God progressives. In the last decade, they have done a miserable job of persuading people. In that time, though, they have become much more brazen in using riots, blunt force and raw power to get their way, anyway. Obama’s reflexive response to any setback is to ignore the law, stomp on it, then dare the Congress or the Courts to stop him. Usually, they just take it. So in the next few weeks, I will watch closely to see whether the anti-God progressives try to whip up violence and rioting to set our cities burning. I will be watching to see if President Obama starts making noises about “Russian hacking.” I wait to see whether they will accept defeat or resort to the violent, strong-arm tactics they have so relied upon. Certainly today, both Clinton and Obama have made gracious, unifying statements. We will see if it holds.
If the peaceful transfer of power takes place, I will happily retreat on January 21, 2017 and work on the book of stories connected to each decade of the Rosary I long to finish and learn to play the piano, confident that even if all is not well, the country is starting to move in the right direction. If not and we see two months of convulsions, I will retire on July 5, 2018 and do the same. All that will change is the date I will quit the scene.
And now, the piece I wrote two years ago:
At the homily at Daily Mass today, our priest delighted me. The Gospel reading was from Matthew 6:24, where it says you cannot serve two masters, that you cannot serve both God and mammon. Normally, I groan through the childishly oversimplified definition of mammon as money or wealth when this Scripture comes up, which mistakes a part for the whole of the matter. I wanted to stand up and cheer when our priest said that mammon is not merely money as many seem to think, but an attachment to worldly things, to a secular way of thinking.
This is at the heart of what is both good about the election results and why those results will make little difference in the progress of the Storm that is upon us. The systems we relied on to make both Western Civilization and America great bastions of freedom and opportunity are shot. They are tattered beyond repair. America was the final flowering of Western Christian thought before the Enlightenment divorced philosophy from theology, reason from faith. Barely a decade later came the firstfruits of the Enlightenment, the bloody and murderous French Revolution, which replaced one form of tyranny with another, far more brutal variety while pretending it was all for “the people.”
God, the Judeo-Christian God, is the firm foundation upon which Western Civilization was built and rests. I am uninterested in specious arguments from pseudo-intellectuals about the evils that Christian kings and rulers did through the ages. The Advent of Christianity did not usher in heaven on earth. As I have often said, we only get heaven when we actually get…heaven. From a social standpoint, what Christianity established was a framework to build upon, grounded in that which gives life. We were shown a way which, we would not fully attain to in this life, but which pursued with vigor and intellectual rigor, grounded in faith, would lead to a great advance in human dignity, in human freedom, in living together in harmony. We were given a system which, if followed, would allow each generation to get a little closer to the reality of Christ than the one before it. Each generation was able to build, brick by brick, upon the foundation and structure that was laid before it, getting ever closer to actually building a City of God.
In the first few centuries before Constantine, these were merely the claims of Christians, though the small Christian communities that dotted the Middle East, Northern Africa and Europe bolstered that claim. Once Christianity took root, it proved those claims, slowly, generation by generation. It was a way of thinking, of believing and of living that built up rather than tore down.
Now, I am going to digress for a moment to preempt the fools with a little learning who would point to the Dark Ages as a repudiation of the Christian impulse towards dignity. Modern ignorance of basic history, philosophy and theology is utterly astounding. I know that most people think the Dark Ages were a Christian phenomenon – because they have been taught that by anti-Christian polemicists near as ignorant as themselves. The Dark Ages were brought on by secular princes who feared that knowledge dispersed among the people was a threat to their power – that it should be suppressed in order to secure their ambitions and dreams of glory. Even half-wit secularists could deduce this without a great deal of study by following the logical conclusions that rise from the facts that, during the Dark Ages, the monastic movement took deep root. In the Monasteries, the monks went beyond copying Sacred Texts by hand and began to also copy out classic secular writings, the great ancient philosophers, that they not be lost to humanity entirely. It was in the Monasteries, during the Dark Ages, that the progenitors of the modern library and the modern university took shape. It has always struck me as a fine irony that, when all mankind abandoned faith en masse, it was the very home of faith that actually kept reason alive. The Dark Ages were the first great progressive movement, a determination to treat the great mass of men as dependent dogs to be ruled and cared for by a few elite princes who would decide what was best for each.
So what is good about last week’s American elections? What it reveals about the heart of the people. For generations we have steadily been pulling away from any public acknowledgment of God. That burst forth in the last decade in one major, perhaps predominant ideology, commonly called the left or progressive movement, that is openly hostile to God, Christianity, American traditions and values, and Western Civilization. We have bought almost completely into the toxic spirit of antichrist, that good can only be done without reference to God. Having marched through the cultural institutions of our society, it has reigned politically triumphant for the last six years. People have seen what it has wrought. It is not an increase in dignity, in brotherhood or in prosperity. The mass has started to reject it.
The problem is that the right is not a Godly coalition. Oh, it is not openly or even – for the most part – covertly hostile to God as the progressives are. It just thinks that God and talk of faith is ancillary to solving real problems – that, at best, God is just a brick in the wall rather than the foundation supporting the entire cultural edifice. The right will merely tinker at the edges of the corrupt edifice the left has erected. Who really believes the new Congress will firmly put a stop to the legal assault on small business owners living their religious conscience? Will anyone at the IRS and other public agencies that have targeted conservatives, Christians, and pro-lifers for their beliefs be held to account? Will a balance in powers be re-established, or will the new Congress just squeal impotently and hold show hearings if the President continues to unilaterally do whatever he feels like?
Even if the new Congress reacted with vigor on restoring a genuinely Constitutional order the nation is largely run by a bureaucratic class that has grown to beastly proportions and was removed from all accountability to the public – or elected officials – through Civil Service laws. Even if it tried to get the beast under control, the underlying financial structure is damaged beyond repair. It will crash because it has spun so out of control that government accounting measures are designed to hide the extent of the damage rather than reveal them. It will crash because there is no network of genuine collective international security institutions that are more than a facade. NATO exists on paper only. Throughout the globe, nations understand that they are on their own and must scramble, as best they can, to survive. What would happen if Russia invaded Poland? What if Iran invaded Israel? Who would stand effectively against Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea, Mongolia, even Japan? No one believes the United States would intervene effectively on behalf of any ally any more. Shoot, I’m not sure if the United States would do much more than send letters of protest if Alaska were invaded. The United States has been the prime guarantor of Western Civilization for a century now. When that guarantee loses credibility, it leaves foes looking to take advantage of the vacuum and it leaves old allies looking for new alliances that might secure their survival.
I caught a little flack a few weeks back when I noted that Russia has done nothing yet that does not make strategic sense to me. Some assumed I was praising Vladimir Putin, or that I endorsed Russian aggression and adventurism. It was neither. But I was irritated by shallow analyses that made Russian actions seem the dreams of a madman, a modern-day Hitler or Genghis Khan. To paraphrase a Chicago Alderman from the last century, “Geo-politics ain’t beanbag.” Some are horrified by Russian brutality. Well, so am I. But Russian rulers have been notably brutal going back into antiquity, whether they are Commissars, Czars, or roving bands of rival warlords. That the modern ruler acts as all Russian rulers have for almost a thousand years may be deplorable, but it is not a sign of national insanity. And frankly, it wasn’t all that surprising to me. Russia has long defined national greatness in Western terms while preferring medieval Eurasian methods of achieving its aims. It is part of what I describe as its thousand-year identity crisis.
Whether or not Russia has embarked on a mad quest of conquest must be judged on its actions within the framework of what it perceives to be its national interest. I have written before that, ever since the break-up of the Soviet Empire, there has been debate over whether Eastern Ukraine would be part of Russia or part of a Ukranian nation – both in Ukraine and Russia. It has been governed from Moscow for centuries and most Eastern Ukranians regard themselves as Russian, including religiously. While the technique used to justify the Russian invasion resembled the Nazi justification for the invasion of Poland, it is substantively different. If the American Union broke up and California became part of Mexico, an American invasion of California to take it back might be advisable or not, but it would not constitute irrational adventurism. That is roughly akin to the invasion of Eastern Ukraine. Once there was even a hint of danger that access to the warm water port in the Crimea might be at risk, invasion was inevitable. Whether good or bad, handled well or poorly, it was not irrational. It made geopolitical sense. Now if Russia were to invade Western Ukraine, that would be a different matter – more like the U.S. invading Mexico. It also would set up cultural problems, for Eastern Ukraine is Eastern Christian just like Russia. Western Ukraine is Western Christian, which would be an ongoing source of potential strife and disruption. It does not make geopolitical sense in any obvious context.
But let us take a look at the larger geopolitical framework. Vladimir Putin made a seminal speech at the Valdai Conference in Sochi last week, a speech that the western media has barely deigned to notice. I was particularly struck by the second fundamental point, that all systems of global collective security lie in ruins and that it is the United States which has destroyed them. It confirmed what I have thought about Putin going back for about a decade.
Russia, better than any other nation, understands the implacable supremacist ambitions of China – and its long-term, carefully patient strategy. For years, Putin longed to have an American Nixon to play off against, someone who understood geopolitical realities and was not put off by tough talk. The world was more dangerous and volatile than any one power could handle – and there were things, regardless of what was said, that were better off handled by others. Russia naturally wants influence in the Middle East. During the Bush years, Russia tried to advance its influence, but was largely content to let America handle it with only a few pro forma protests. Very simply, the Middle East is filled with a bunch of excitable Muslims – whose brothers are right at Russia’s door in Chechnya and other Republics. The potential for blowback was huge. While occasionally piling on, Putin was confident America would take the danger seriously and keep it contained. Russia would holler about defensive radars planned for Eastern Europe, but accept it. Why? It knew the United States was not going to invade Russia – and that, though those radars were justified as preventing Russian adventurism, they might come in right handy when China got to feeling its oats. Putin did not consider Bush a great geopolitical thinker, but he was a competent and responsible player on the world scene.
Fast forward to the Obama foreign policy as it unfolded. If you were watching for it, you could literally see Putin’s growing astonishment, dismay, and finally contempt for American fecklessness. When Obama cancelled the radars set to go into Poland within the first days of taking office, Putin was astonished. Gladdened perhaps, but shaken that the new American President did not even try to get a concession in return. In international relations, the only thing you give for nothing is nothing. It was an early warning of a new American incompetence on the very basics of international diplomacy. No one wants an incompetent dance partner.
When America allied with Qaddafi’s Libya as a useful partner in suppressing violent Jihad, then abandoned him at the first sign of trouble; when America abandoned the Egyptian ally most responsible for maintaining stability; when America ignored the rebels and sided with the Mullahs as serious potential revolt rose in Iran, Putin came to realize that America didn’t even know which team it was on anymore. When America began berating and undercutting Israel and siding with the very Jihadist warriors who were trying to destroy both Israel and America, Putin realized that while America might still have the toys, it was no longer a great – or even significantly consequential – power in world affairs.
It had to be a terrifying moment. Understanding clearly the meaning of China asserting its muscle in the South China Sea and the massive build-up of its conventional forces, Putin had to wonder to whom he was going to turn to balance growing Chinese power and adventurism. The United States might one day be a force again, but allying with it now was a good way to get toppled. A century ago, Europe was chock-full of great powers. Now it is composed of simpering eunuchs who would be useless in a real fight. (Apologies to my European readers, but your nations have castrated themselves). Japan, perhaps, but its relations with Russia have almost always been a troubled encounter – and it has enough worries with N. Korea and China acting up in its vicinity. Whatever they want to do, Africa and Latin America are not in a position to project useful power that far from home and are not likely to be any time soon. India can be a useful ally, but only if you can negotiate the knife edge between Indian and Pakistani mutual hostility. Australia is resolute and useful, but geography suggests it may want to hedge its bets with China.
The bottom line is that, at one point, Putin realized that China was rising, he was the only major world figure to take it seriously, and he stood almost alone. China needed to know that Russia had not gone soft – and Russia needed to shake up the world framework to defend its future.
It jumped into the Middle East with both feet when Obama fumbled the ball with Syria. Putin’s play might have seemed cynical, but he advanced two causes. First, he gained a foothold in real influence in the Middle East, demonstrating he was willing to be patron to other Islamic client states if they wanted it. This made sense because it was clear America was no longer effectively able to contain the volatility of that region – or even willing – and Putin always knew someone had to. Second, if the Jihadists on his borders created trouble, it would be useful to have some Muslim allies who might help dampen it down.
The invasion of Eastern Ukraine served a multitude of purposes. First, there was the ambiguity about which nation it rightly belongs with after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Historically, it is Russian. Second, the Crimea is vital to Russia’s ability to project naval power – and the lack of effective naval power is, incidentally, the only real weakness in China’s massive build-up the last few decades. Third, it demonstrated to China that it will project power if it perceives it to be in its interest – so that it is better for China to be a friend than an enemy for now. Fourth, it demonstrated to smaller countries wondering where to go given the vacuum of reliable American power, that it will exercise power to protect perceived interests and allies. You do not have to agree that this is HOW things should have been done to understand it is not just random madness. Even the Russian elder statesman most respected in the west, Mikhail Gorbachev, advised the west to take Putin’s speech last week to heart.
The real kicker is that Russia is exercising a brutal, medieval Eurasian temperament to uphold western Christian values that the west, itself, has largely abandoned. So, American officials are counting on temporal political means to grapple with what are, at bottom, fundamental religious and cultural issues. It seems the Americans are using the right means for the wrong argument while the Russians are using the wrong means for the right argument. Meanwhile China lurks.
Mammon is falling as God rises actively in human history again. People act, advancing His purposes unknowingly. And the Storm draws force.