This meme began circulating in 2019. Mostly driven by Generation Z, it pokes fun at the mores and worldview of the Baby Boomer generation (and older people in general), the punchline being that they are outdated, uncool, and out of touch. Yet, there is a scarcely repressed rage bubbling just beneath the surface of this thin comic ice. The meme sits at the top of a caldera formed by the anguish of America’s younger generations: X, Y (Millennials), and Z, who realize – sometimes consciously and sometimes not – that their country and their futures have been sold out by their selfish, corrupt, incompetent, and decadent elders. Indeed, the year 2019, when the meme began spreading, is an important one, because it illustrates the acceleration of decay during this period of American history. 2019 feels like a paradise compared to 2021. Meanwhile, in certain realms, 2014 felt like a paradise compared to 2019, and the early 2000s were a comparative Eden. To best understand this phenomenon of decay and generational rage, we should view all of these years as being part of a distinct series of interconnected events.
(This post is a preview of the type of in-depth political commentary you can find on my Patreon. Click here to see a lot more. I originally wrote this in January.)
Historians often like to periodize parts of history to get a better understanding of the chain of cause and effect, and of the forces, personalities, and attitudes which respond to it. For example, Chinese historians consider the period between 1839 (the start of the First Opium War) and 1949 (the year the Chinese Communist Party took power) as their country’s “Century of Humiliation.” China, America’s current strategic adversary, is a vital part of our own country’s recent and contemporary history, and it is impossible to understand China’s present posturing without at least a cursory knowledge of how the Chinese view those 110 years.
Likewise, the United States of America is in the midst of its own humiliation. A look at the events of the early 21st century would not invite a different conclusion. Indeed, we can say that the years spanning from 2000 onward comprise a period that future historians may describe as “the Long Humiliation” in American history.
Unlike China’s humiliation, which came at the hands of foreign powers, America’s Long Humiliation is largely self-inflicted, driven as it is by an arrogant, incompetent, decadent, and aging ruling class clinging to a hegemonic liberal ideology that has long proven bankrupt. The defining features of the Long Humiliation are increasing discord at home and a decline in American prestige abroad.
Major events and trends which mark the Long Humiliation include:
- The embarrassing election of 2000.
- The preventable 9/11 terror attack.
- The endless, unwinnable war in Afghanistan.
- The failed war in Iraq.
- The 2008 financial meltdown.
- The failed Arab Spring-related interventions in Libya and Syria.
- The rise of ISIS.
- China’s militarization of the South China Sea and Belt and Road Initiative.
- The mid-2010s rise of “Cancel Culture.”
- The 2016-2019 “Russian collusion” hoax and national hysteria.
- The Crisis of 2020, which included the hysterical, cynical overreaction to COVID-19, the inability or unwillingness of American leaders to maintain law and order on the streets of their own cities, and an election carried out with questionable security measures that left significant doubt about its legitimacy.
The word “humiliation” in relation to these events is appropriate, because the Long Humiliation came in place of what should have been America’s golden century.
The Golden Century that Wasn’t
“The Greatest Generation” has earned its reputation. It is the generation that defeated Nazi Germany, the Japenese Empire, and eventually, the Soviet Union in the Cold War. When the latter finally collapsed in 1991, and the handoff in power to the Baby Boomer generation occurred at about the same time, America stood as the world’s uncontested hegemon, and was due a golden century. The stunning and almost bloodless victory in the Gulf War, which many observers feared would be a long and bloody conflict, put an exclamation point on that status.
This prestige did not come in a linear, unbroken progression. America had in fact faced a period of prolonged humiliation before. This period, which we might call the “Short Humiliation,” lasted roughly from 1967-1981. Then, as now, social decay at home and loss of clout abroad defined this era. Major events and trends included:
- The “long, hot summer of 1967,” with its 159 race riots from coast to coast.
- The faltering Vietnam War, which the 1968 Tet Offensive cast as unwinnable in the mind of the American public.
- The tumultuous (and realigning) 1968 presidential election, marked as it was with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, and violence at the Democratic National Convention.
- The Watergate scandal.
- The OPEC oil shocks of 1973 and 1979.
- The 1970s stagflation.
- The 444-day Iran hostage crisis and failed rescue attempt.
- Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “Malaise Speech.”
Despite these setbacks and embarrassments, the United States was still a culturally united country with a strong national identity and industrial base, and, though unknown at the time, had a weakening peer competitor. The election and inauguration of Ronald Reagan ended the humiliation, as America regained internal confidence and external prestige during his presidency. However, it was also during the Reagan presidency that certain destructive assumptions began taking hold – namely the “neoliberal” market and free trade fundamentalism which would eliminate most economic guardrails that prevented the accumulation of too much wealth and power in the hands of too few interests.
In the 1990s, this belief was solidified, even in the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton. All other considerations were sacrificed on the altar of economic efficiency. If certain industries were lost and some American communities got hollowed out, that was simply the process of “creative destruction” and would resolve itself via other market forces. The same attitude prevailed with immigration. It was also in the 1990s that remaining social guardrails began getting demolished. Almost anything started to become permissible. For all its success, the Reagan presidency failed to eradicate the social Marxist forces that had taken hold in certain sectors of society beginning in the 1960s, especially in academia under the guise of “Critical Theory.” These forces would germinate significantly after his presidency.
The assumption was that all problems would find a resolution through market processes and individual autonomy. This, American policymakers believed, was the ultimate good. Bedrocks of civilization, such as family, community, faith, and national identity, were seen as relicts in this “End of History.”
The result was that even in the 1990s, which were the zenith of America’s power, the decay had already begun. The decade saw an economic boom, yet it was also the time of outsourcing and financialization (though those practices had begun earlier).
While future tech monopolies like Google and Amazon were getting their start, manufacturing was leaving for China, which received glowing reviews from neoliberal American elites. Economic liberalization in China, they said, would inevitably lead to a political equivalent. China would open up over time as engagement with the United States and its allies went on. It received admission to the World Trade Organization in 2001 under these assumptions. Good jobs went out, cheap imports came in, and opioids flowered the land. It became increasingly difficult to earn a good living and start a family without attending a university, and that option still put off family formation under the weight of student debt, while inculcating students with social Marxist ideology for the privilege.
Meanwhile, the few sitting atop these labor and technological changes were getting fabulously wealthy. These economic and social trends did not hit critical mass in the 1990s, but all of them were securely in place by the end of the decade, and much of the wealth from those golden years would be used to create the real estate bubble that led to the 2008 financial crisis.
Decades later, America, we learned, was incapable of producing the pharmaceuticals and personal protective equipment (PPE) needed during the COVID-19 outbreak, which was itself an import from China, along with the fentanyl that had been killing tens of thousands of Americans a year.
This situation did not come about due to misfortune, but due to conscious decisions on the part of American policymakers. The chief beneficiaries were a few corporate executives and the Chinese Communist Party, the latter of which got advanced industry and technology. Uncoincidentally, younger generations are brimming with depressed, angry people in the wake of these decisions.
It is unsurprising, then, that certain forces would prefer the country to argue about whether or not men can have periods. This naturally leads us to the next crucial pillar of the Long Humiliation.
The Political and Demographic Crisis
In comparison to the rest of the Long Humiliation, the election of 2000 seems benign, but it was the flashpoint that both revealed America’s internal weakness, and more importantly, began or accelerated trends that would deepen that weakness.
Politics is by nature a contact sport. Close elections are always bitter. The election of 2000, however, was a mess of a different sort. Decided by only 537 votes in Florida after over a month of recounts and court battles, the winner, George W. Bush, appeared tainted in the eyes of a large portion of the country. That he lost the popular vote added to the distrust between parties. That feeling never faded and has grown worse to this day.
Certainly, there were bitter partisan fights in the past – Bill Clinton’s peccadilloes in the 1990s saw that first-hand. Yet, the nature of these fights changed post-2000. Partisanship became not just the vehicle for representing different constituencies of a nation’s political disputes, but the avatar of different nations fighting within the same borders over questions of power and identity as the means of economic advancement decreased. With the legitimization of mob violence in 2020, the resemblance to the late Roman Republic’s all-or-nothing factional politics became clearer.
Political polarization received strength and reinforcement from the country’s ongoing economic and demographic changes. Over time, Democrats chose – partly consciously, partly as a result of events having their own momentum – to abandon their traditional working class base. Instead, they became the party of the affluent, emerging, transnational technological elite, as well as the nation’s fast-growing minority population. This “demography is destiny” theory produced the belief in an emerging permanent Democratic majority.
Whether this coalition is stable or not (and I don’t believe it is), the implicit assumption undoubtedly explains, at least in part, the arrogant behavior of party apparatchiks and loyalists in the country at large, with their increasing drive to “cancel” opposition and impose their will on the populace, seen most acutely in the Crisis of 2020. These “cancellation” efforts naturally increased the already-accelerating political polarization of the country. Democratic base voters are also pumped with identity-based “intersectional” appeals, which in effect tell them that American society is rotten and that they are either oppressing or being oppressed. This naturally leads them toward anger and distrust in the country and its institutions.
The Republican Party, by contrast, was (and in many ways still is) a party in denial about its own standing, failing to come to terms with the fact that its post-Reagan “fusionist” coalition became increasingly irrelevant in the 2000s, and was all but dead as a national political force by 2008. It stumbled into its new base of low-social capital voters left behind by globalization partially through accident. Because of this dynamic, Republican voters often felt unrepresented by even their own party (whose establishment to one degree or another felt embarrassed by them), let alone their partisan opponents who want to cancel them and the American sociopolitical body at large. The instinctive, undisciplined Donald Trump forcibly grabbing the party reins in 2016 was the most obvious sign of this denial.
This situation has not only frayed the social fabric, but it has harmed the ability to govern, even when both sides agree that a certain initiative would be a good idea. For example, there is widespread bipartisan agreement that there should be a large national initiative to upgrade American infrastructure. None of it happens, though, because neither side wants the other to get the credit – another calling card of late Roman Republic politics.
After all, why should one empower political opponents who mean you harm?
The last two decades of polarization (and other sociocultural forces) have created two sides that have a fundamentally incompatible worldview, even in a country with an economically populist majority. One side is led by those with post-national tastes. It has a base that often considers America as a nation rooted in evil and oppression. It is eager to erase such evil while issuing identity-based correctives. The other side sees the nation as fundamentally good, if flawed, and prefers a colorblind meritocracy that preserves America’s foundational culture and assumptions. Obviously, there is little agreement that can come about between such factions. Unlike in America’s “Short Humiliation,” the two parties of the “Long Humiliation” increasingly don’t represent people who disagree, but fundamentally want to see their shared national polity prosper. Instead, they represent sectarian factions who don’t even agree on the nature of reality, let alone a conception of the common good.
The post-Cold War consensus responsible for America’s Long Humiliation is fundamentally an imperial one. Convinced that history had ended, American policymakers became taken with the idea of a second Manifest Destiny. America would spread liberalism to every corner of the world. America’s liberal ideology, rather than its industrial and military might, had won the Cold War, they believed.
Their hubris ensured that they would fail to heed the advice of the grandfather of American internationalism, Theodore Roosevelt, who understood that the availability of power, rather than its use, produces the most effective clout on the world stage (Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, pg. XVI). After the Reagan presidency, that power had recovered, and through its brief use in the Gulf War in service of a limited, achievable objective, left no doubt about who was the top dog on the world stage.
George W. Bush failed to learn the lesson of his father. Ironically, he had run in 2000 on a platform opposed to the notion that America was the policeman of the world. However, in the wake of the 9/11 attack he failed to prevent despite ample warning, he changed course. Rather than adopting a narrow, realist objective of punishing the terrorists responsible for the attack, Bush attempted to recreate Afghanistan as a liberal democracy (his successors are still trying 20 years later).
In his 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech, Bush made it clear that this agenda extended beyond Afghanistan. A year later, Iraq became the next export market for liberal democracy. Saddam Hussein fell, but liberal democracy did not emerge in his wake. Iraq instead became an unstable country in a region which was further destabilized by subsequent interventions in Libya (directly) and Syria (indirectly) under Bush’s successor, who also ran as a peace candidate.
Thousands of American lives were lost, tens of thousands were wounded, and trillions of dollars were drained from the treasury in years-long boondoggles. Meanwhile, China began its militarization of the South China Sea and its Belt and Road Initiative, using its power intelligently while America squandered its own. America is now incapable of providing all of the technology and medicines its soldiers need – China must supply them. It is also incapable of preventing its closest allies in Europe from signing an investment agreement with China.
The availability of power is certainly not what it was when the dreams of a second Manifest Destiny began circulating in the 1990s. “Black Hawk Down” and Somalia should have been an early wake-up call.
Another significant underpinning of the Long Humiliation is that those responsible for it almost never see accountability for their actions. Politicians get reelected. Pundits and journalists whose predictions failed or whose reporting was wildly inaccurate either don’t lose their jobs or get promoted. Bureaucrats and government officials who construct terrible policy remain in their jobs, get promoted, and get pensions. They often get cushy jobs as lobbyists, corporate officers, or media talking heads upon leaving office – the infamous Washington “revolving door.” Not a single person has faced criminal charges for the events leading to the 2008 financial crisis. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s health commissioner who put COVID-positive patients back into nursing homes – but not before pulling her own mother out, just got promoted to Assistant Secretary of Health.
Meanwhile, those who make accurate observations and good policy often receive punishment and ridicule, because they usually find fault with the post-Cold War American ruling class in one form or another.
Because of these disincentives, charting a different course for the nation and correcting the mistakes of the Long Humiliation have proven gargantuan tasks. This dynamic was in play during both the Obama and Trump presidencies. Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump got elected on mandates to end the Long Humiliation. Both failed, for different reasons.
Barack Obama ran on a platform of ending the excesses of Bush’s foreign policy and bringing a more equitable economy out of the 2008 meltdown. Yet, he was never the right person for either task. Fundamentally, he was always wedded to the post-Cold War ruling class consensus which believed in hegemonic international liberalism and the unfettered movement of labor, capital, and goods. When he diverged, he was undercut by what no less a controversial figure than Ben Rhodes infamously referred to as Washington’s foreign policy “blob.” His “Pivot to Asia” was undermined by forces in his government that were still obsessed with Europe and the Middle East. America did not concentrate strategic resources on the growing China threat, but instead, armed “moderate” rebels in Syria and found itself in yet another quagmire dealing with ISIS while China eagerly began its Belt and Road project and building islands in the South China Sea.
Donald Trump was a candidate of a different sort. Unlike his predecessor, he was a true outsider, repudiating the status quo approach to economic, social, and foreign policy – and meaning it. Where he could, Donald Trump enacted policies to reverse course, particularly on the border and in relation to China. However, he failed to end the Long Humiliation, which continued to accelerate in his term. These failures stemmed from…
- His own character flaws – most prominently his oversized ego which he allowed to interfere with his mission, and his naivete, which led to terrible staffing choices and bargains with a “permanent Washington” deeply hostile to his agenda.
- The reaction of his opponents, who went to unprecedented lengths to kneecap him in the bureaucracy, media, and even in the private sector.
Failure and maliciousness got rewarded more than ever in the Trump years. Such qualities became part of a game of social signaling. People stamped themselves as “respectable” for opposing Trump in anything he did, no matter the other considerations.
So long as entrenched interests are more concerned with protecting their reputations and fiefdoms even if it means entrenching failure, reformers will have a tough hill to climb. The sad truth is that the Long Humiliation is incentivized among the American ruling class.
What Comes Next?
Pain. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, there is no real hope accompanying Joe Biden. He did not get elected to end the Long Humiliation and is incapable of it even if he wanted to. Indeed, he is one of its architects, having been there for every disastrous decision, from letting China into the WTO, to voting for the invasion of Iraq, to failing to hold those responsible for the 2008 financial crisis to account. He has appointed the same gaggle of failures from the Obama administration and beyond that are also architects of the Long Humiliation.
Along with these appointments comes a far-left policy agenda that even Obama couldn’t dream of proposing, along with vows to crack down on and cancel any dissent, using the Capitol Hill riot as a pretext. Polarization is certain to accelerate even further during his tenure as a result of policy positions and more authoritarian crackdowns on the Democratic Party’s political opponents. The sight of nearly 30,000 troops turning Washington into a fortress to defend an inauguration that no one attended was more than a tragicomedy. It was (and as of March 2021, still is) a sign of a ruling class that has lost its right to rule and knows that its hold on power is tenuous. Its failures led to Donald Trump in the first place. Deep down, it knows it is only out for itself and will not improve the lives of the American people – that ship sailed by 2008. Its avatar is a frail old man in cognitive decline with no charisma, who got elected because of the combination of his predecessor’s character flaws and COVID-19 hysteria, not because of any qualities of his own or his agenda. As Richard Baris, one of the best pollsters in the country, recently noted:
The capitol doesn’t look like this is a peaceful transition of power. It looks like a military junta enduring their figurehead isn’t opposed by political dissidents.
— Rich "The People's Pundit" Baris (@Peoples_Pundit) January 18, 2021
This is a textbook desperate power grab by a ruling class that fears its own perpetuity. These are the actions of a political class in a third world country who have recognized they're utter failures at meeting the needs and concerns of their people, so they close themselves off.
— Rich "The People's Pundit" Baris (@Peoples_Pundit) January 18, 2021
The Long Humiliation will continue for the coming years – but hopefully it will stop accelerating and reach its apex. Democrats – now unambiguously the party of the post-Cold War ruling class and increasingly the only party of that class – are as certain to overreach as they are certain to fail the country. The Republican Party is rapidly disentangling from that ruling structure both by choice and by expulsion – witness the cutoff in corporate dollars. There is a better chance now than ever of a political force which can challenge the assumptions and corruption driving the Long Humiliation – and do so in an intelligent way that surpasses Donald Trump’s impulsive pugilism.
We must create virtuous and strong men out of these hard times, men who can push a positive agenda and end America’s Long Humiliation. I will reveal more about that agenda in my forthcoming 95 Theses.
The mission of ending the Long Humiliation is daunting and multifaceted. The first challenge comes vertically. As we have noted, there are significant incentives for the American ruling class to cling to its failed assumptions, for their own reputations if nothing else. This incentive misalignment leads to the “failing up” phenomenon and a regime that “privatizes profits and socializes losses.” The ruling class is in many ways insulated from and benefits from their own incompetence – even if accidentally. This tight network of misaligned incentives was not present, or at least not yet mature, in the Short Humiliation.
The second challenge comes from a domestic horizontal front. Partisan sectarianism increasingly means that both sides cannot compromise on common-good measures and are too busy attempting to establish dominance over one other. This is already proving to be the top item of the new administration’s agenda, with its show of force in Washington and its talk of a “domestic war on terror.” This is a classic sign of a regime on shaky foundations, but it nevertheless will cause significant damage to the country.
The third challenge comes from a foreign horizontal front. Unlike in the Short Humiliation, America’s current strategic adversary, the China that it empowered, is growing stronger. It is rapidly gaining parity in technology and closing the military gap. It is certainly responsible for spreading not only COVID-19 itself, but the hysteria surrounding it, goading the world into lockdowns so that it could emerge in the strongest position, while pretending it “solved” its own virus problem. Most significantly, its influence operations in the United States are vast, including over the family of the new president, which, we should probably trust, won’t see the light of day anytime soon.
The fourth challenge comes from the bottom. America is a country lacking in character and virtue among its citizens. Abandoning classical education and the teaching of the virtues, which had been standard practice before the middle of the 20th century, has created the short-sighted, hedonistic ruling class that produced America’s Long Humiliation. It is this pathos of the Baby Boomer generation, which squandered a golden century through their vice, that the “OK Boomer!” meme implicitly mocks. Inculcating classical virtue back into the blood of the American people is an important objective and is why I wrote Lives of the Luminaries in 2020. Only through that can we begin to roll back the short-sighted hedonic ethos that prevails among the ruling class and the Marxist poison that it sponsors as a quasi-official religion – with punishment for heresy.
These are colossal challenges. Some may consider them insurmountable. This is not idle pessimism, either. Over and over again through history, civilizations reach a state of permanent decay and ultimate collapse. Perhaps that time has come and the “ka” – the thing the Egyptians considered the vitality of the soul – of America’s heroes has been starved by its modern decadence, leaving only the rotting mummy behind. Joe Biden himself would be symbolic of this.
But he is also symbolic of a desiccated, incoherent, and weak ruling class that completely lacks in virtue. Behind the self-reinforcing, self-congratulatory social networks through which they exercise power, they have almost nothing. This is why they resort to an Empire of Lies and overreact to any challenge. This is the symbolism behind fortifying Washington for the inauguration of an unexciting figurehead that few would have attended anyway.
America remains a great country with still-untapped potential. It is far likelier that the latter interpretation – a ruling class without a ka – is truer than the former interpretation – a civilization without a ka.
Nevertheless, if the former is true, and America is doomed for further humiliation that ends with the country in a state of permanent intermediate weakness, let us not act in a way that would make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Look at our track record. At moments of crisis in our history, a good leader has always stepped forward.
It will happen again. There is a snake-eater out there, working in obscurity, who will be called by Fate at the right time. We have to hang on until the cavalry arrives!
— QuintusCurtius (@QuintusCurtius) January 19, 2021