The Madness of Crowds

The Americans who’ve suffered at the hands of Wall Street, and two long, ineffectual wars, are angry, and they’re going to make those responsible pay for it — by voting for Donald Trump.

BUFFALO, NY - APRIL 18: Supporters reach for signatures, handshakes and photos as republican presidential candidates Donald Trump greets the crowd after speaking during a campaign event at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, NY on Monday April 18, 2016. (Photo by )
BUFFALO, NY - APRIL 18: Supporters reach for signatures, handshakes and photos as republican presidential candidates Donald Trump greets the crowd after speaking during a campaign event at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, NY on Monday April 18, 2016. (Photo by )

The big political question in 2016 is: Why are voters so angry? So angry that primary voters in the United States have selected an unqualified, bullying, factually challenged blowhard as the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. So angry that British citizens voted to take a blind leap in the dark (aka Brexit), a move so rash that its leading advocates — such as former London Mayor Boris Johnson and former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage — initially fled from the consequences of their own actions. So angry millions of Democrats flocked to the quixotic campaign of Bernie Sanders, and so angry that right-wing extremists may still gain power in Austria, France, and possibly elsewhere.

There are plenty of obvious reasons for this resurgent populism — beginning with the declining economic fortunes of the middle class — but let me suggest another possibility. Could it be that voters around the world — and especially here in the United States — are simply fed up with a political class that repeatedly engages in self-serving misconduct yet walks away unscathed, leaving others to pay the price of their mistakes? Might that explain the willingness to put one’s trust in people who don’t look or sound like a responsible leader or a knowledgeable member of the elite? As British Tory Michael Gove put it before the Brexit vote, “People in this country have had enough of experts.” I fear he may be right.

Think back over the past 20 years or so. Whitewater and the tragic death of Vincent Foster may have been just fodder for right-wing conspiracy nuts, but Monica Lewinsky wasn’t. Yet Bill Clinton managed to tell his fellow Americans a bare-faced lie and get away with it. Indeed, the whole saga of the Clinton family — from Gennifer Flowers to the Clinton Foundation to Hillary’s email server — is one where they behaved as if there is one set of rules for ordinary people and a different set for them. That hardly makes the Clintons unique, of course, and it is fair to say that no other American politicians have faced such a relentless and well-funded partisan attack machine, determined to see scandal even where none existed. Even so, their history of sketchy conduct goes a long way to explaining why Hillary’s negatives are as high as they are today.

But the aversion to genuine accountability is really much broader. The Bush administration didn’t want anyone to conduct a serious, independent investigation of the 9/11 attacks, and top officials tried to thwart the 9/11 Commission at every turn. They needn’t have been so worried: The final report offered a riveting account of the 9/11 plot but declined to pass judgment on any U.S. officials for specific leadership failures. As Evan Thomas of Newsweek later commented: “Not wanting to point fingers and name names … the 9/11 Commission shied away from holding anyone personally accountable.”

That same thing happened following revelations that U.S. personnel had seriously abused Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. Even though, as Jane Mayer wrote in her book The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, “The lawlessness and cruelty on the ground in Iraq clearly stemmed from the policies at the top of the Bush administration,” a series of internal government reports pinned the blame entirely on local commanders or enlisted personnel. The New York Times correctly labeled the Army inspector-general’s report of these incidents a “300-page whitewash,” and a separate report by a team of former government officials (handpicked by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) acknowledged “institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels” but declined to identify any of the persons involved.

Nor should we forget the Obama administration’s decision not to investigate the rest of the Bush-era torture regime — justified by Barack Obama’s belief that “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backward” — and the strenuous resistance the Senate Intelligence Committee faced when it tried to investigate these abuses themselves. Nor does it seem to matter how often top intelligence officials get caught saying things that aren’t true; they somehow manage to keep their jobs and the “full confidence” of the president.

Similarly, instead of investigating possible malfeasance by financial institutions in the 2008 financial crisis, Washington chose to bail out the banks. In sharp contrast to earlier panics (including the Great Depression and the 1980s savings-and-loan scandal), hardly anybody on Wall Street was held accountable despite the deception and fraud that helped cause the collapse. Not surprisingly, railing against Wall Street became a central theme of Sanders’s surprisingly successful presidential bid. Americans were angry at what happened, and even angrier that none of the people responsible suffered as they had.

And then there’s the obvious double standard regarding the handling of classified information. The U.S. government classifies mountains of information for no good reason, yet whistleblowers and low-level officials who leak or mishandle it are likely to have their careers and lives ruined. But surprise, surprise: Former CIA directors and former secretaries of state get treated rather differently. Read this account here, and see if you can detect a clear or consistent “rule of law” operating in this area of national security.

It goes on. As I write this, Obama has just announced that the United States will be keeping 8,000-plus troops in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. I’ve lost track of how many commanders we have had in that war, but didn’t they all strike a tone of measured optimism and tell us that just a bit more effort would win the day? Remember that “surge” back in 2009? Some of us knew it was unlikely to work, but apparently nobody in a position that mattered did. Meanwhile, we’ve squandered hundreds of millions of dollars on aid and reconstruction projects that often fail to achieve their stated objectives. But as Special Inspector for Afghanistan John Sopko recently stated, “Nobody in our government’s been held accountable, nobody’s lost a pay raise, nobody’s lost a promotion. That’s a problem.”

And when accountability does take place, it is sometimes too late to do much good. A case in point is the release this week of the Chilcot Report, a detailed investigation of British decision-making in the run-up to the Iraq war. It is a damning indictment of Tony Blair’s leadership and acumen: While absolving Blair of deliberate deceit, the report makes clear that he ignored expert warnings, presented conjectures as if they were demonstrated fact, and gravely underestimated the complications that toppling Saddam Hussein would produce. The report puts the final shovel of earth on Blair’s reputation, but in the meantime he’s made millions with some morally dubious consulting work and served as the ineffectual head of the mostly irrelevant “Middle East Quartet.”

But notice: Nothing even remotely like the Chilcot Report was produced here in the United States. Nobody in power wanted an official inquiry into the ways that the Iraq war was conceived and sold to the American people, and the blunders that were made along the way. This would have required a full accounting of the individuals and groups that came up with the idea, persuaded George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to embrace it after 9/11, and worked 24/7 to persuade politicians and the public to sign on. And the lack of any official account is one of the many reasons why the so-called neoconservatives — who were the main architects of the disaster — continue to exercise considerable influence in Washington despite two decades of consistent bad judgment.

The supreme irony is that this situation has opened the door for a con artist like Donald Trump, whose business career is littered with failed ventures and whose political career is built on a rickety tower of insults and lies. When insiders repeatedly evade accountability, public trust inevitably erodes. Eventually, some people become so frustrated and angry that they are willing to cast logic and evidence aside and just go with their gut instincts. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Politics 2016.

Author’s note: Reading over the above, I even sound a little angry to myself. It is therefore an opportune time for me to take a summer sojourn and give myself a chance to read, reflect, and (hopefully) relax. I’ll be back in early August.

Photo credit: JABIN BOTSFORD/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt
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