It’s striking that two grimly titled but very different new books about America’s decline—Last Best Hope by George Packer and After the Apocalypse by Andrew Bacevich—both invoke a little-remembered 1940 jeremiad by the French historian Marc Bloch called Strange Defeat. In that short book, published a few years before its author was killed by the Gestapo, Bloch indicted his own people for cultural decadence and societal disintegration, leading to France’s subjugation by the Nazis.
Both Packer, a staff writer at the Atlantic and a National Book Award-winning author, and Bacevich, a historian and retired career U.S. Army officer, believe Bloch’s indictment of France is relevant to what the United States faces today. “Like France in 1940, America in 2020 stunned itself with a collapse that was larger and deeper than one leader,” Packer writes, referring to Washington’s often incompetent response to COVID-19. “Under invasion and occupation, few of our institutions held up.” Bacevich, too, suggests that, for different reasons, the United States is in a position analogous to that of defeated France in 1940, suffering a total collapse of leadership and vision. “My purpose in writing After the Apocalypse compares with Bloch’s,” he writes.
Whoa. Is the United States really that far gone? After all, we don’t see anything like the Wehrmacht goose-stepping up Pennsylvania Avenue—not even close. Rather than leaving the nation’s future to a collaborator like Philippe Pétain, Americans managed to elect Joe Biden, a fundamentally decent guy who is proving nearly every day that he is not Donald Trump. Biden received a record 81 million votes and promptly began undoing Trump’s worst depredations. True, more than 620,000 Americans have died of COVID-19—far too many unnecessarily. But the pandemic is hardly comparable to the Nazi occupation, much less the Holocaust. And for all America’s failings, the country still seems to be the cleanest dirty shirt in the global laundry compared with China’s aggressive debt-colonizing and Russia’s various pretensions to influence. There really is, even now, no alternative ideological model to freedom—and the United States remains, by far, the most powerful free nation on Earth. Like it or lump it.
More to the point, the extraordinary first six months of the Biden administration have to some extent already begun to redress the deeper societal ills that Packer and Bacevich sketch out. Biden’s New Deal-sized spending plans and redesigned America Firstism—accurately described by Edward Alden in these pages as America First with a brain—are an ambitious attempt to cure the worsening inequality that Packer identifies as the nation’s central problem today. Through these programs, the 46th president is also seeking to close the gap between what Packer calls “Real America”—the angry, isolationist working class that Trump won over from the Democrats—and 21st-century progressivism. Above all, Biden is intent on restoring the basic idea that self-governance in a nation of 332 million unwieldy individuals can work.
At the same time, the new president’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and his restraint in the “forever wars”—U.S. drone strikes are well down all over the world, Chris Woods of the global monitoring group Airwars told me recently—have gone a long way to addressing Bacevich’s complaints about overreach and the excesses of American exceptionalism. Yes, America has often failed in its effort to transform the world, but this is hardly an “apocalypse,” as Bacevich repeatedly calls it.
Yet America is floundering, Americans are probably as divided as they have ever been, and the world remains profoundly uncertain about America’s ability to endure. “If you’re European, you’re saying to yourself, ‘If this country, which we have basically counted on since 1945, can produce something as unpredictable as ‘Trump Island’ and it remains so polarized, how do we know what’s going to happen in 2024 and ’28?’” the veteran U.S. diplomat Joseph Nye told me late last year.
This American sickness is not going away; it may only be getting worse. “Something has gone wrong with the last best hope of earth. Americans know it—the whole world knows it,” Packer writes.
He is right. Both of these books, written with passion by two Americans appalled by what they see happening to their nation, are necessary contributions to this dire moment. With no silver bullet available, Trump is still out there doing his worst to reincite and exploit these divisions—and millions upon millions of Americans seem to be with him. The former president is currently on a “revenge tour” seeking to defeat the handful of Republican members of Congress who voted to impeach him, and the party’s timorous leaders are back cringing in his pocket after delivering brief, tentative objections to Trump’s Jan. 6 attempt at overturning the 2020 election results. Both the basic idea of self-governance and America’s leadership in the world are in doubt, which is why both these books are important, at least in laying down basic premises for a long-overdue national debate. Both books are very personal—one might describe them, like Bloch’s on France, as jeremiads or philippics—written as first-person witness accounts from inside a disaster.
What precisely has gone wrong? It is too easy to lay it all at Trump’s door—to say that he is a uniquely mendacious demagogue or that he’s already 75 and therefore the problem will solve itself in time. There is a deeper underlying problem that Packer begins to address by quoting Alexis de Tocqueville on the American passion for equality. Tocqueville thought this American yearning for “equality of conditions” represented the march of God’s will on earth, but he didn’t fully foresee the nightmare to come—that the insistence on equality might someday come to mean that everyone’s opinion, no matter how ill-founded, was deemed equally valid.
The Founding Fathers knew democracy could work only if the American populace was well informed. But what if there is more information than anyone can handle and no direction home to the truth? Trump has exploited these conditions brilliantly, creating the concept of “fake news” that autocrats around the world now love to invoke. Indeed, of all the major political figures in the world, it was Trump who figured out first how to manipulate the fact-free digital world, how to transform nonsensical innuendo into viral certainty without fear of effective contradiction. As a result of this and other trends, Packer writes, “Large regions of the country have gone dark, enclosing citizens in private worlds of simplification and lies.”
If a substantial portion of the 74 million voters who went for Trump in 2020 now believe the Big Lie that the election was stolen from him, what sort of precedent does that set for future demagogues? And what message does it send to the rest of the world? In a much-cited academic paper published in 2019, “Democracy Devouring Itself: The Rise of the Incompetent Citizen and the Appeal of Right Wing Populism,” the University of California, Irvine political scientist Shawn Rosenberg argued that these phenomena are very likely permanent because the media and elected elites who kept democracy alive in the past have lost control of the conversation. And there seems to be no prospect for regaining that control. The American sense of a common purpose in nationhood is, bit by bit, being destroyed. Major social media platforms such as Facebook are only contributing to the trend by feeding people “content to support their own interests, which is splintering up communities,” as Ramesh Srinivasan, the author of Beyond the Valley, a sharp critique of Silicon Valley, told me in 2019. As Packer writes, citing Tocqueville, “The great danger of equality is atomization.”
Atomized we are becoming. Packer’s is the better book, brilliantly diagnosing this American illness in stinging, crisp prose that spares neither right nor left on the widening political spectrum. That is the greatest virtue of Last Best Hope: its evenhandedness and intellectual honesty. Packer breaks down the problem into narratives of “four Americas”—two each on the right and left. The right has on its side the “Free America” of libertarian ideals and the “Real America” of white Christian nationalism. The left is now defined by the “Smart America” of meritocratic elites and the “Just America” of the woke progressives. “I don’t much want to live in the republic of any of them,” Packer writes, often delivering scintillating epigrams to make his point. (For example, Just America’s coercive tactics—dubbed “cancel culture” by some—“remind me of left-wing ideology in the 1930s,” Packer writes. “Woke aesthetics is the new socialist realism.”)
But Packer’s solutions are sometimes disappointing: If only the four Americas could get to know each other better, he writes, “by killing their Twitter or Facebook accounts and spending time in the physical presence of other Americans who don’t look or talk or think like them.”
That’s not going to happen. Perhaps then, Packer writes, the solution is to “require a year of national service, in military or civilian form, repaid by scholarship, training stipend, or small-business grant.” Sure, just try getting that through this Congress. Even if you do, what’s it really going to solve? Does anyone remember Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps National Service Program?
Bacevich, for his part, is mainly seeking to dismantle what he sees as any lingering U.S. pretension to global leadership. His complaints are often seriously overdrawn, which is perhaps not surprising considering he is president of the hyperrealist Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, named for John Quincy Adams, who famously declared that America should not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” Bacevich’s desire to withdraw from the world is understandable and comes with tragic overtones: He lost his son in a needless war, Iraq, in May 2007.
Bacevich is right to confront the delusional imperialist pretensions that led to the Iraq War. But in his zeal to fix things, Bacevich tars every foreign intervention with the same brush. He fails to identify the unique disaster that was the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Former State Department lead counsel Harold Koh has called it the “original sin” of the post-9/11 period—killing tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers unnecessarily, destroying American prestige, and distracting Washington from the necessary war in Afghanistan after a terrorist group harbored by Afghanistan’s rulers, the Taliban, killed thousands of Americans. The Iraq debacle also exposed U.S. vulnerabilities that were never apparent before, schooling terrorists and militias in new asymmetric techniques, including improvised explosive devices and the use of small, spread-out cells that began in Iraq. As the counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, the author of The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West, told me: “In 1991, the Gulf War showed everyone how not to fight us, but the 2003 invasion of Iraq showed everybody how to fight us.”
Packer, in his book, offhandedly calls the Iraq War a “strategic folly enabled by lies and self-deception” without acknowledging that he personally had a hand in America’s current derangement; he and other leading U.S. pundits wholeheartedly supported the Iraq invasion at the time.
Bacevich repudiates the whole idea that, as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said, the United States is the “indispensable nation” or that there even remains anything recognizable as the “West.” The arrival of what Bacevich hopefully calls the “Next Order”—America’s retreat from its role as global stabilizer—“renders the very concept of the West obsolete.” This is nonsense. The West is badly fissured, but it still exists powerfully in the form of institutions such as the G-7, NATO, Bretton Woods, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—not to mention, more importantly, in a consensus on basic freedoms and human rights. Almost to prove this point, Bacevich goes on to argue that the United States should simply stand by the “global community,” without acknowledging that the United States and the major Western nations in effect created this global community and remain its critical mainstays today.
America’s current low point was hardly inevitable. History easily could have gone the other way: Washington missed a golden opportunity after 9/11 to further solidify the West and raise itself up higher. This misdirection began, of course, with George W. Bush, who, despite being a far more likable president than Trump, was a far more disastrous one. With his feckless move into Iraq—which alienated the West and the rest of the world—Bush succeeded not only in creating a costly quagmire and, ultimately, losing Afghanistan in the bargain. He also lost what Bush called “this mighty coalition of civilized nations” that were, until that point, mostly with him in the global war on terrorism.
One of the worst days in U.S. history, Sept. 11, 2001, also had a silver lining in strategic terms. The sympathy the rest of the world sent America’s way post-9/11 was a recognition that virtually every major country around the globe faced the same kind of threat. After the Cold War, some pundits were questioning—as Bacevich is today—whether the West would long survive the extinction of its archenemy, Soviet communism. 9/11 was a grand chance to ensure that it would: Post-9/11 polls, pre-Iraq, still showed a remarkable degree of global consensus in favor of a one-superpower (or American-dominated) world and an international community that would, together, fend off its last criminal holdouts, the terrorists. Terrorism of the al Qaeda variety provided a “natural bonding agent” for this U.S.-managed international system, as the Yale University scholar Charles Hill then described it.
But Bush catastrophically squandered this opportunity—which was why most of the globe was with the United States when it invaded Afghanistan and almost no one was when Bush turned to Iraq. Cue Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China, which have stepped into the vacuum.
This history is today, of course, a mighty Mississippi of toxic water that has passed under the bridge. So where is America now? Thus far, the United States has come through what Packer calls another “near-death experience” for the American experiment, one that was tantamount to 1860 and 1929. A wide variety of political scientists, historians, and economists I interviewed before the 2020 election called it the most important one in U.S. history—for the simple reason that Trump’s return to power, after a first term in which he spat on and undermined nearly every institution of democracy, would have likely meant the end of the American republic. Some, such as Edward J. Watts, the author of Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny, suggested the 2020 election was a “fulcrum moment” like the destruction of the Roman republic.
But now Trump is out of power—for the moment—and the question is how to prevent him and his ilk from regaining it. This is where Packer and Bacevich do an important service in demanding that we rethink the basic terms of the debate—about who Americans are and what the United States should be in the world. Both authors agree that, as Packer writes, the “idea that America is unique and superior among nations, exempt from the cruder forces of history, with a special mission to shine the light of liberty to the world—the idea that has led to some of our noblest ventures and worst mistakes—has become impossible to sustain.” It is long past time to adopt a new humility. Other new books that address this crisis of America’s leadership role tend toward half-solutions: One example is Michael O’Hanlon’s The Art of War in an Age of Peace, a perfectly articulated inside-the-Beltway nostrum that merely calls for a new strategy of “resolute restraint” while leaving the massive overinvestment in defense and America’s modernization of its nuclear weapons largely untouched.
Modest proposals like these are not going to get us anywhere. The real solution, perhaps, must start with trying to work, first, toward some kind of domestic consensus. It lies in returning to Packer’s four categories of America and recognizing that, as he writes, they often overlap and merge. Obviously there are not four Americas you can place anywhere geographically; these separate narratives exist within the same states and towns, sometimes even the same homes.
More importantly, the four Americas often bleed into each other, and they must each learn from their worst mythologies: For example, Reaganite “Free America” so infected the Democratic Party establishment for four decades that it ultimately yielded up Hillary Clinton, who in 2016 failed to comprehend in time just how much the angry working-class base of the party was flocking to Trump. She also failed to learn the lessons of the surprising strength shown in the Democratic primaries by Bernie Sanders—who was merely the other side of the populist coin to Trump and better understood the anguish of the working class abandoned by the Democratic establishment.
The only possible solution is a national Venn diagram in which Americans can create enough overlap between the four Americas to overcome the differences. This would, as Packer says, serve to “make America again” and allow for a rebirth of national identity affirming that Abraham Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” endure. Perhaps this could lead to some kind of new consensus about the appropriate balance between a globally engaged America and an inwardly focused one. As Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s former senior aide, writes in his own new book reckoning with the problems of America, After the Fall, “To have any capacity to help fix what has gone wrong in the world, we have to begin fixing what has gone wrong with ourselves.”
Biden, to his credit, is trying to accomplish this—to “end this uncivil war that pits red against blue,” as he said in his inaugural address. A son of the working class, he is trying to restore it. And as someone who has seen—and often been part of—the best and worst of U.S. intervention around the world for five decades, he seems to be trying to strike the proper balance between national interest and overreach. Succeed or fail, Biden could decide a great deal.