Sometimes, a lightning bolt striking “over there” can reverberate over here.
A new appreciation of something called “the rules-based international order” took hold of — seized, really — the American public with the invasion of Ukraine by its superpower neighbor, Russia. Somehow Americans of every political stripe understood intuitively that strongman Vladimir Putin’s assault was no mere land grab, but something more ominous.
Until that History-shattering moment, we Americans treated our freedom as an immersive environment, a vast unencumbered space in which we freely went about our business, freely pursued our happiness. How often did we give inward thanks to the Founding Fathers for their brilliant architecture enabling this freedom, or to our parents or grandparents for rescuing this precious mantle from annihilation in World War II? (Time’s up.)
But watching as innocent people were forced into exile or executed if captured or “disappeared” into Russia, with no mercy shown their outnumbered defenders: We Americans, in the main, root for the underdog. We also, in the main, sense the peril to the environment in which we’ve swum so long — the rules-based international order. Which is remarkable, because, having become so polarized, we Americans don’t do “in the main” anymore, nor do we do “we Americans.” But bipartisanism reigned in the divided Congress and giant packages of military aid have been passed for Ukraine.
Retroactively, intuiting that only a rules-based order protects underdogs against strongman aggression, we took onboard this order’s history: how after World War II the United Nations, NATO, and international courts were set up, how this system secured the peace of the last 75 years — until now, with this major land war in Europe threatening to become WW III. It’s often the case that architectural specs are consulted again only after the edifice has suffered major damage. Consider us now more architecturally aware.
At the same time, another kind of order — moral — gains new appreciation. Like much of the world, Americans see Putin’s assault on Ukraine, especially as his war crimes and atrocities mount, as a clear case of Evil assaulting Good. As a 20-something woman said to me, getting the dire implications for the world: “Bad guys up, good guys down.” Which is also remarkable: Having degraded our culture for decades now, we Americans don’t do “evil” or “good” anymore. Yet in our sorrow for Ukraine, we’ve retrieved our moral compass; we newly appreciate the rules governing war’s conduct contained in the Geneva Conventions, notably the rules against attacking civilians.
In sum, an unruly nation (us) is coming to see the point of rules.
Further, in this horrific war we see something new in the Modern age: a true hero. Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, is an Everyman who’s stepped up to inspire his people in a truly existential struggle. Contrasted with the anti-hero who could care less, Zelensky cares profoundly for his people and says he’d die for them. This heroism thrills the world, Americans included. We cynically thought we didn’t do heroes anymore, but when the real thing appears, we do.
“Lessons learned” is often a postwar exercise, but best if lessons are acquired during war, so as to learn, adapt. Of course with Putin’s war in Ukraine, these lessons must not be drawn at Ukraine’s expense, as if it were a pawn in big-power politics. For Ukraine’s cause — one lesson “we Americans” are learning — is our cause: In an altering world where strongmen rulers loom ever larger, Ukraine is defending the Holy Grail — our free way of life enabled by a rules-based order.
Meanwhile, back at the near-civil war here at home, where rules are being blasted….
No doubt the reason Americans are riveted with Ukraine’s struggle is this: The clarity of purpose and unity of people that Ukraine musters in its fight for our rules-based international order are nowhere to be found here in America, world’s oldest democracy, “Leader of the Free World.” Are we able to learn some lessons of our own? Are we ready to acknowledge again the rules that once made our order go? Can we truly get over our allergy to any rules at all?
As it happens, a teaching moment — the January 6 hearings, taking place these past weeks with more to go — underscores how dangerously far off the track America has fallen.
No mere “protest,” the January 6 rioters tried to pull off an insurrection, which if survived is as far as a rules-based polity can go and still repair. Their objective? To stop the peaceful transfer of power — Rule №1 in democracy’s playbook; otherwise, it’s chaos and war, the way of most all human history. Answering former president Donald Trump’s call to “save America” from a “stolen” election, the insurrectionists aimed not just to stop the electoral count, but to kill those standing in their way: Vice-President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. For a taste of insurrection, watch again the raw footage aired at the hearings: This is what rules-free looks like.
Apart from the visual, the hearings shine light on institutional damage: how a rogue president, to retain power, manipulated the very machinery of American democracy. Trump sought to get the Department of Justice(!) to declare the 2020 election fraudulent, to get states to change their vote count or elector slates, to get his V.P. to stall the electoral count. When these machinations failed, he incited a mob on the Capitol. In sum, this anti-democrat broke democracy’s every last rule. Crucially, witnesses testifying to Trump’s rule-breaking are fellow Republicans: While they supported him most of his tenure, at the democracy-breaking end, they could not. It remains to be seen if rule of law itself will be fortified, if the Attorney General brings criminal charges.
So, what do we have here? To repair, we need to specify the damage, and what we have here is: corruption, venality, lawlessness, violence, all weaponized by poisonous lying. But, for Trump, these are not late-flowering vices; he exercised them his whole tenure. (Such vices attaching to the world’s lead superpower, especially rules-free lawlessness, is, from the world’s point of view, harrowing.)
But Trump the Lawless is not an anomaly. Trump is a feature, not a bug, of American culture.
As much as our politics, Trump emerges out of our culture: He is the apotheosis of the flim-flam man, the hustler, Herman Melville’s “confidence man” plying Mississippi riverboats for marks to be relieved of their cash (Trump has raised a quarter-billion dollars for his voter-security campaign). Likewise the Wall Street denizens of Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country. For these types, rules and regulations are for suckers, as are moral considerations. In other words, those things making up Civilization mean nothing to the con man, who, unconstrained, is free to exploit humanity. Heaven help us if this type gets political power — which is precisely what the Founding Fathers feared most. Alexander Hamilton, in The Federalist Papers №1, warned of ambitious men “commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”
These rule-breaking qualities got turbocharged in our own time, in the cultural slackening of the post-World War II era. Specifically, the above-cited vices were fueled from various sources and grew dominant: corruption (via money-politics), venality (moral stricture gone), lawlessness (Watergate), violence (fetishized in films like “Bonnie and Clyde”), all weaponized by poisonous lying (truth is relative). Countering the growing vice by invoking virtue was futile (I have receipts). Rule-breaking went commercial: The motto of Facebook, a company of global reach, is “Move fast and break things.” The disrupter is today’s “hot” cultural type (would that more disrupters had follow-up plans). Rule-breaking infects even our cultural gatekeepers: Critics laud “transgressive” art. Compounding the problem: our various interpretations of America’s hallmark freedom, with some citizens exercising their freedom responsibly, others not, some wildly not. Also a problem: our fierce individualism which, rules-free, morphs into a criminal narcissism. It all denotes a culture in decline. When even the Church (various denominations) molests children, the rule-book is in tatters.
But now: America — still wrapped around the axle by a rules-free and amoral former president 1.5 years after he left office, and shown what Roman poet Virgil called “the upper air” by Ukraine’s existential struggle to save the rules-based international order — now America wants to get right. While a “breaking bad” culture got its president in Trump, now, at the abyss and while course-correction is still possible, America wants to break — well, if not good, then normal. Normal: where rules and laws apply, where accountability is actually meted, where trust and truth exist, where excellence excels and civility is accorded — where “we Americans” can congregate again.
But first, America has an existential battle of its own: to break the fever — of lawlessness and extremism infecting seemingly half our populace. Astonishingly, witnesses to the January 6 hearings are reportedly being threatened, with messages of the ilk that “a person” is watching you. Can we be done with all things mafioso? (Now we learn, at this week’s hearing, the capo himself makes the calls!) The to-do list of our rescue operation is long, but do-able: save voting rights, secure the election system, repair all other things appertaining to a rules-based order.
Almost a century ago (1929), Sigmund Freud wrote Civilization and Its Discontents, which posited that, to enable Civilization’s beauties and potentialities, human beings must each quell their violent and anarchic animal within. We all, the conscientious and the Donald Trumps alike, have that animal within, the difference being Trump doesn’t struggle with his animal, but we must. This struggle, with our inner rules-breaking anarchy, will enable our maturity. It will also enable the rescue of the rules-based order, international and national both. Anyone discounting this task is not looking deeply enough into our present abyss, nor seeing truly the peril there. For myself, I cannot think of any more exciting odyssey.
Bon chance, America.