What if, instead of being a sign of America’s decline, Donald Trump’s erratic and destructive presidency was a kind of harbinger of America’s enduring resiliency? That seems to be the main message of Bruno Maçães’ latest book, History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America. Mind you, the book is far from a MAGA manifesto or an attempt to rationalize or normalize Trump’s behavior. Far from it. Rather, it is highly contrarian prediction about the meaning of the changes that the United States is currently undergoing.
The book’s starting point is a sense of dissatisfaction with the hyper-rational, Rawlsian version of liberalism that seeks to derive an answer to every social problem from first principles. Even though its aim is to maximize human autonomy, the social world constructed by liberalism leaves nothing to actual choice by individuals—all one needs to do is to follow abstract principles. Paradoxically, Maçães writes, “society may be richer in human possibilities if it allows for the existence of illiberal ways of life.”
In general, I’m not fond of this loose use of “illiberalism.” Maçães’ observations may be correct as far as they go, but they leave aside the fact that the liberal tradition is broader than its narrow, constructivist version he describes. Political philosophers have been long aware of the tension that exists between the rationalist view of freedom and pluralism of intermediate groups—families, churches, civil society—that both help preserve and constrain freedom. Jacob Levy’s Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, for example, makes a compelling case that this tension is inherent to free societies. No amount of philosophizing makes the tension disappear; rather it is something that has to be constantly negotiated. Far from being a rationalist straitjacket, the liberal tradition allows for this very negotiation to take place. Any solutions to this tension, necessarily provisional, will look different in different societies.
Maçães suggests a neat dividing line running through the Atlantic, with the United States firmly on the pluralist side and Europeans embracing the top-down Cartesian version of liberalism. Furthermore, in part thanks to the country’s inherent pluralism, Maçães claims, political life in the United States has now become unmoored from reality. That has been manifestly true throughout the vertiginous news cycle of the Trump era—and has been even more true since the book’s publication in February. (Peter Pomerantsev wrote a wonderful piece about the unreality of life in the age of COVID-19 for this magazine.)
But the pandemic has now been almost completely displaced by nationwide protests and riots over police brutality. As if a television channel were switched, the same experts who stressed days ago that social distancing was non-negotiable, if not tantamount to murder, are now saying that the pandemic should not stop people from protesting racism, even if it is “hard to keep six feet of distance at a protest.” Yet none of this needs to be seen as a sign of crisis. Rather it could be understood as a marker of America’s reinvention as a unique and original civilization, distinct from the liberal democracies of Europe and better able to capitalize on its creativity and dynamism. This bold prediction hinges on two assumptions. First, that the “principle of unreality” is really unique to the United States and, second, that a systematic disregard for reality will not have real-world consequences.
None of this is wholly correct, either. For one, Maçães’ dividing line is too tidy. The gulf between French secularism and British or Swedish multiculturalism is just as vast as what separates the United States from any European country. For another, “unreality” is not something the United States has any kind of monopoly on. “Only in America!” Yogi Berra reportedly exclaimed after learning about a Jewish Mayor from Dublin. But because of the primacy of English as a world language and America’s global cultural and intellectual dominance, we might all be Americans now. It is striking, for instance, to see how rapidly the Black Lives Matter movement has spread to other Western democracies, with vastly different approaches to policing and different experiences of race relations. Also dispensing with social distancing rules, anti-racism marches took place in scores of major cities around the globe from London, through Berlin to Adelaide.
Needless to say, politics as entertainment and its disconnect from reality, which have characterized the Trump presidency, have also been a staple of politics in post-Soviet countries since the fall of communism. Never mind the Russian unreality, so aptly diagnosed years ago by Pomerantsev. In Ukraine, a comedian was elected as president after playing the role of the country’s president on TV. In 2015, Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, was granted Ukrainian citizenship and appointed governor of the Odessa region. Two years later, he was stripped of it. Then, as in a television show, he illegally crossed the Ukrainian border from Poland, ended up in a detention center, went on hunger strike, and in 2019 had his citizenship restored. (It was certainly fun to watch.) To the west of Ukraine, in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the two firebrand populist prime ministers, Igor Matovič and Andrej Babiš, use social media platforms for running commentary on daily political events. Instead of negotiating with his coalition partners in private, Matovič debates them on live television and in comment threads on Facebook.
In the UK, there was more than a whiff of unreality about the scandal of Dominic Cummings’ drive to Scotland in the midst of the pandemic. Cummings—who had pushed the strict lockdown measures in March—first accused the media of lying, then admitted that he had indeed been to Durham and also to Barnard Castle and justified the detour by claiming that he had been unsure about his eyesight so decided to test it by driving with his family to the landmark. Nothing is true and everything is possible, indeed.
So arguably America is less unique than Maçães makes it out to be. But even if you agree that the United States remains qualitatively exceptional on this count, the question remains: can a political culture that systematically rewards escapism be a good foundation for a successful society or a civilization? I remain firmly optimistic about the future of America for reasons that Maçães cites—“the weak hold of traditional social structures, the ideal of invention and creativity, the love of modern technology”—but I have difficulty seeing that the country’s best days will come simply from its “final turn towards fictional structures.”
But the multiplicity of narratives and storylines—from MAGA to the Green New Deal, from the impeachment proceedings to the pandemic to protests over police brutality—are reminiscent of the abundance of choice on cable television, the ultimate metaphor for the American experience. America’s “democracy [is] less the incorporation of input from voters than the constant appeal to viewers with new content, new projects and new possibilities,” Maçães writes. Thus far, however, we have only seen an accumulation of unresolved plots and mysteries, not unlike the show Lost. It is enough to glue viewers to the screen for a couple of seasons but, ultimately, it may leave them tired and unsatisfied.
“The real world has many disadvantages,” Maçães acknowledges. “What happens in reality cannot be undone. And the real world is one: there is no place there for contradictions or even for multiple versions of the same experience.” Indeed, a commitment to lies as opposed to a “life in truth,” Jan Patočka and Václav Havel argued, can be corrosive to human dignity. Moreover, both as individuals and as societies, we are stuck with the real world we’ve got—and we ignore it at our own peril. If what happened in the world of politics stayed there—as in Las Vegas or Westworld—Maçães’s civilization would have a running chance of success. But when fiction and reality are intertwined, facts are prone to snap back. Regimes built on single grand utopian schemes crumbled. Will a society organized around a multiplicity of utopias thrive?
What distinguishes liberal democracies from other diverse societies is the presence of institutions that mediate conflicts and channel pluralism towards socially desirable outcomes. Where such institutions are lacking, as in the ethnically fractionalized societies of Sub-Saharan Africa, conflict and dysfunction ensues. Since institutions carry accumulated knowledge about what works and what does not work, they have to be based in reality. They are also meant to be, as my AEI colleague Yuval Levin argues in his book, A Time to Build, formative and not performative. They are not platforms for unrestrained individual self-expression, as has become the norm in the United States, but rather instruments of molding individual behavior into pro-social shapes and forms. One has to wonder whether a political culture of ‘LOL, nothing matters’ is an adequate substitute.
It is not clear that Maçães himself genuinely believes the “promise of unreality,” either. That “America is becoming a developing country but is doing so ironically” is hardly a ringing endorsement of changes in American politics—and comparisons to “countries such as India or Russia or even the Islamic Republic of Iran” do not exactly give one confidence that the book is describing an exciting society of the future, rather than a civilizational dead end.
One is thus left wondering if the book is not an exercise in reverse Straussianism, with the subversive, esoteric thesis of the book merely providing a façade for a more restrained set of predictions about the future of the United States, including its capacity for renewal and reinvention. The book’s closing chapter on America’s grand strategy, in particular, reads almost pedestrian in its insistence on the hard-nosed imperative of preventing a single power from taking over the Eurasian landmass—an imperative that is very much based in reality and not in stories that Americans are telling themselves. Like coronavirus, global geopolitics might not care very much about one’s feelings.
Still, there is no question that Maçães is onto something important here, unlike most of the conventional takes on the Trump era. And, with many others, I remain in suspense about what cosmic calamity the screenwriters have in store for the next episode of the show.