Blogs: Paul Pillar

The False Neoconservative Claim of Consensus

Foreign Conduct as a Response to U.S. Policy

Why, and How, Congress Should Enact an AUMF

Additional Weirdness in Opposition to the Iran Nuclear Agreement

Trump and the Loss of Public Spirit

Paul Pillar

We have seen other manifestations of the same set of attitudes from other candidates in this year's Republican race. There is Cruz, who even before his inane call to abolish the IRS (so then who collects taxes?) had devoted his tenure in the Senate to trying to shut down government rather than trying to make it work better. There is Marco Rubio, who even before his presidential campaign got rolling had lost interest in doing his senatorial job and in working at it full time for six full years on behalf of the constituents who had elected him to do so. And speaking of senators doing or not doing their jobs, there is of course the willful crippling of the Supreme Court for at least a year by the majority party in the Senate refusing to consider the president's nomination to fill a vacancy.

Aspects of these attitudes, voiced as they are so incessantly from one side of the political spectrum, have cultivated corresponding attitudes in the larger American population. Heroes to the American public do not tend to be, as they once were, those who made exceptional sacrifices or performed exceptional deeds on behalf of the public good. Today they are at least as likely to be successful entrepreneurs—someone such as, say, Steve Jobs—who are admired for some combination of their financial success and the way they have satisfied us not as citizens but as consumers.

We have seen a slight foreshadowing of the Trump phenomenon in the presidential nominations in the most recent years. Consider the two Republican opponents who ran against Barack Obama. In 2008 it was John McCain, a senior senator and a war hero. In 2012 it was Mitt Romney, who—although his single term as governor of Massachusetts would have kept alive the unbroken string of public service experience among U.S. presidents—has devoted the rest of his career to being a private equity artist. I.e., a financial engineer, making deals to turn profits without a public interest being served, very much in the manner of Trump's dealings. Trump brought this mini-trend full circle last year with his disgraceful comments in which he said McCain was not a war hero but a loser.

The rejection of a sense of public spirit, and with that rejection the associated attitude that government is always a problem and never part of the solution, inflicts immense damage on the public good, even though much of that damage is less apparent than the condition of Washington's Metro. Or sometimes it only becomes apparent when the damage becomes great enough to cause a crisis, as it has recently with the contamination of the public water supply in Flint, Michigan. Efforts of Republicans in Congress to deflect blame away from the Republican governor whose administration had taken control of the city and aim it instead at part of the despised federal bureaucracy, the Environmental Protection Agency, ignored how Congress had intentionally legislated away the power of EPA to do much in such situations. President Obama, who visited Flint this week, spoke accurately about the “corrosive attitude” that opposes government investments in public infrastructure. “It’s a mind-set that says that environmental rules designed to keep your water clean or your air clean are optional or not that important,” Mr. Obama said. “That attitude is as corrosive to our democracy as the stuff that results in lead in your water.”

People focused on making fortunes in the private sector should reflect on the lesson provided by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in the most recent Foreign Affairs, in which they explain, “It was the emergence in the first half of the twentieth century of a robust U.S. government willing and able to act boldly on behalf of the country as a whole that led to spectacular advances in national well-being over many decades.” Steve Jobs was a terrific innovator, but look inside that iPhone that helped make him a hero, note Hacker and Pierson, and “you'll find that most of its major components (GPS, lithium-ion batteries, cellular technology, touch-screen and LCD displays, Internet connectivity) rest on research that was publicly funded or even directly carried out by government agencies.” The authors sadly note that “it has been the withering of government capabilities, ambitions, and independence in the last generation or two that has been a major cause of the drying up of the good times” that had prevailed in particular during the first three decades after World War II.

The dominant public philosophy in the United States about individual citizens' relationship with their nation and their government has experienced a big turn for the worse in the half century since John Kennedy was urging citizens to ask what they can do for their country rather than what their country can do for them. The nomination by a major party of someone who has done nothing for his country and instead boasts of an ability to make money-making deals is a culmination of this terrible trend. Donald Trump has exploited that trend, but there are many others who share responsibility for the trend and continue to exert their malign influence on American attitudes today.      

Image: Alcibiades. Detail from Francois-Xavier Fabre. Public Domain.