“How silent are the footsteps of spring,” wrote Thoreau, and between the slow rolling arrival of the new season and the promise of vaccines, a window of fresh air has opened in the stuffy room of 2021. But Rule 1 (it will get crazier) still holds.
Given the sanity of the Biden Administration you may be inclined to relax your vigilance. But Rule 1 was never about politics. It was about the way technological change and institutional rot (in the form of greed and racism) have distorted the incentives of our culture, our leaders, ourselves.
I invoke Rule 1 not to panic or terrify you. Rule 1’s purpose is a reminder that things are not as they seem and we must act with urgency. The world order we see as stable is in fact fragile and not doing the job it should (even if it is working pretty well for you and I). Let me quote the opening paragraph of Barbara Tuchman’s “Guns of August”, the great history of World War I:
So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens–four dowager and three regnant–and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.
The funeral of King Edward VII in May of 1910 may have been the most opulent event in human history. If you were present at that overwhelming display of wealth and military power, it was unthinkable that those institutions were on the bring of collapse. Thirty six months later, the entire system was in freefall, and a decade later the world was completely different.
That’s the kind of time we’re living in. Rule 1 was never about Donald Trump; he is just a symptom. There are fundamental historical, scientific and cultural forces at work that are re-writing of most (if not all) of the assumptions that undergird contemporary life.
(Pause for a contemplative sip of your powdered mushroom coffee substitute.)
I know you are exhausted by last year’s campaign. But I feel a moral obligation to remind you that the next election is just 18 months away, and the GOPT — the Grand Old Party of Trump — is poised for victory. I would not bet against them at this stage:
- It’s already close: the 2020 victory was razor thin: Just 90,000 votes — 43,000 votes for president, 32,000 votes for the House and 14,000 votes for the Senate — and the GOPT would have controlled all of Washington. In a country of 330 million, 90,000 votes isn’t much.
- They’re making it harder to vote, especially in competitive states: As you have undoubtedly heard, Georgia has signed a bill into law that doesn’t quite criminalize voting, but comes damn near close. It’s not just Georgia — Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania are following Georgia’s lead, and it’s not a coincidence that those four states are politically the most competitive at every level. Axios has a map that serves as a stark visual reminder that almost all 50 states are facing aggressive efforts to curtail voting. This is a coordinated effort with a national strategy designed to ensure minority rule.
- It’s not just Washington: The GOP controls a majority of statehouses and state legislatures and more state Supreme Court justices lean Republican than Democrat. All of this is backed by Republican-appointed majorities on federal appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme court. Republicans have 27 of the 50 state governors, and control 30 state legislatures (compared to 18 for Democrats, with Minnesota divided and Nebraska nonpartisan).
- And then there is Media: As I said in my last email, there are two mainstream medias: the conservative one, and the old one. The conservative one has reach and staying power. The old one has neither. Not only that, the old one’s bias towards the negative does not help Biden or the Democrats, no matter how much good news they’re generating. Last week’s pathetic news conference — where the White House Press Corps did not ask a single question about the pandemic — being a case in point.
So what does Biden do? There’s no doubt that Biden is already a more transformative president than I thought possible. It turns out that what he learned during his 37 years in the Senate was not (despite his sermonizing) the joys of bi-partisanship, but that you do whatever it takes to get things done. His policies so far are off the charts with public support; 4 in 10 Republican voters expressed strong support for Biden’s latest COVID relief bill. And yet, not a single Senate Republican voted for the bill. Why?
Well, for one — they see victory on the horizon at 18 months and have no incentive to do anything that might increase the Democrats’ chance to maintain control. Moreover, they’ve got their mainstream conservative media. If you’re watching Fox News, Newsmax, and OANN, you’ll learn that not only has the MyPillow guy really expanded beyond pillows but that Biden’s American Rescue Plan does not appear to exist. Instead, Biden’s chief policy achievement so far is an opening of the borders (not true) aided and abetted by the socialists who were behind the Jan. 6 attack on the capitol (even thought the FBI says no way). The Non-Conservative Press isn’t helping Biden much, either — witness this week’s presidential press conference without a single question about the pandemic.
Thankfully, our 46th President will not be distracted. He’s keeping his eyes on the prize — in his own words: “Successful presidents — better than me — have been successful, in large part, because they know how to time what they’re doing — order it, decide and prioritize what needs to be done.” Repeat after me: Shots, checks and jobs.
But will that laser-like focus work? Storytelling is the great power of culture and politics. The Republicans and their Media (is the GOP anything other than Media at this point?) understand that storytelling is the only currency that matters. Biden is counting on shots, checks, and jobs to keep Democrats in control of Washington. But great storytelling — storytelling that taps into real emotions and deep cultural currents — can and will defeat a chicken in every pot:
Douglas Burns, a longtime newsman and political independent who co-owns the Carroll Times Herald, is similarly pessimistic. As a reporter, he watched any number of Iowa Democrats run what he considered solid, mainstream campaigns, attentive to voters and their local concerns, only to lose.” Said Burns: “Unless you live here, I don’t think you can appreciate the level of rural white grievance. We think that you can win people over with the issues. I’m not sure that you can.”
Biden needs to tell a New American Story to help us believe in each other again. To quote Pankaj Mishra: “FDR succeeded because he saw the birth of a spacious moral imagination as vital to his task — and recognized that his own rhetorical gifts, though impressive, were not strong enough to achieve it.”
Wendell Berry’s poem “Wild Geese” ends with these lines:
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.
We’re going to have to write the New American Story together. And it better be damn good. Got to keep the eyes clear, and remember: what we need is here.
Lots of love, nicco
PS. This morning’s news (unmentioned by most US media) that China is escalating its militaristic approach to the Pacific has inspired a lengthy post-script on geopolitics and Rule 1.
As they say, “well-behaved boats rarely make history”. The giant container ship stuck in the Suez Canal is a reminder of the hidden infrastructure that allows contemporary life to hum along. Where is Godzilla when you need him? About 12% of the world’s trade goes through the Suez; roughly nine billion dollars’ worth of goods go through the canal on a daily basis. I checked IsTheShipStillStuck.com and it says we’re headed into our sixth day of the blockage, with no clear timeline for the canal to return to normal business. Soon we’ll begin to see the gears of the global economy getting mucked up — all over a single ship. Better stock up on toilet paper and canned goods now, especially if you live in Europe (I mean you, Helen B.). At least over here we’ve got the Panama Canal.
I know, I know: it’s not a normal ship. The whole episode reminded me of a book I thoroughly enjoyed: “The Box”, a history of shipping containers. It’s a lot more fascinating than it sounds. A deep dive in the history of the Suez Canal (which I will spare you) brought to my attention the curious historical footnote of The Great Bitter Lake Association.
Back to Rule 1. It’s notable that the Biden Administration’s general stance towards China follows the Trump Administration, albeit with slightly more diplomatic language. Not only is Biden keeping the Trump China Tariffs, but the recent high-level talks between Biden’s Secretary of State and China’s Foriegn Minister were a lot more confrontational than anyone expected.
The ancient Greek historian Thucydides posited that the war between Athens and Sparta was inevitable because of Spartan fears of the growth of Athenian power. In 2015, Graham Allison published research showing that this was not an aberration of the ancient world; analyzing the historical record, Allison found that over the last 500 years whenever a rising power rivaled a ruling power, war was the most likely result — usually ending badly for both nations.
China is undoubtedly the rising power; America is the ruling (and falling) power. Tension over everything from trade to Hong Kong to the possibility China will seize Taiwan are all symptoms of an emerging new order in global politics. A trapped boat in the Suez, like a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing, can have unintended consequences.