Victor Davis Hanson
“Be assured young friend, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.”
— Adam Smith
Are we sure that there is all that much ruin left in the United States?
We are $31 trillion in collective debt. The new normal is $1.5 trillion budget deficits. The military is politicized and short of recruits. We trade lethal terrorists for woke celebrity athletes as if to confirm our enemies’ cynical stereotypes.
Our FBI is corrupt and discredited, collaborating with Silicon Valley contractors to suppress free speech and warp elections. We practice segregation and racial discrimination and claim we do not because the right and good people support it and, anyway, the victims deserve it. The country has seen defeat before but never abject, deliberate humiliation as in Kabul, when we fled and abandoned to the terrorist Taliban a $1 billion embassy, a huge, remodeled air base, thousands of friends, and tens of billions of dollars in military hardware—and hard-earned deterrence.
We are witnessing the breakdown of basic norms essential for civilized life, from affordable food and fuel to available key antibiotics and baby formula. Old Cairo seems safer than an after-hours subway ride or stroll at dusk in many major American cities. Medieval London’s roadways were likely cleaner than Market Street in San Francisco. Speech was freer in 1920s America than it is now.
The Breakdown of Basic Society
Our California always is a preamble to America’s future. Our present is likely your tomorrow.
Each summer here we impotently expect forest conflagrations. Millions of acres of flames pour more millions of tons of smoke and carbon and soot in the skies. Tens of millions of hated combustion engines cannot begin to match the natural blankets of aerial dirt.
The state seems to shrug it off, saying wildfires are both inevitable and natural. Old-fashioned forest management and fire-fighting strategies, honed over centuries, are deemed obsolete by our green experts. So, we let fiery nature take its better course. What is the implicit message to those in the way of fires that devour homes and trees? Nature’s way? Natural wood mulch? Or that such fools should not build their cabins or homes where they are not wanted?
What was bequeathed to us from a state of 15 million—magnificent aqueducts, once brilliantly designed freeways and airports, superb universities and schools, perfectly engineered reservoirs, and downtowns of majestic skyscrapers—in a California of 41 million are frozen in amber or in decay. They have few updates and even fewer replacements. The decrepitude recalls the weedy forums and choked fountains of Vandal-era Roman cities, which is what happens when a later parasitic generation mocks but still consumes what it inherits but cannot create.
Our own generation’s pale contributions are multibillion-dollar, quarter-built, graffiti-defaced high-speed rail Stonehenge monoliths. We prefer to shut down rather than build nuclear plants. Our solar battery plants are as prone to combust as they are to store electricity. And our urban streets reek of feces. All seem testaments to our incompetence, arrogance, and ignorance. We fear the idea of homelessness, and so cede to the homeless our downtowns and avoid what follows.
Our great universities, once the most esteemed in the world from Berkeley and Stanford to UCLA and USC, grow burdened with commissars, too many of their outnumbered faculties are weaponized, and their students have never been more confident in their abilities, and with so little reason for that confidence.
A return to syllabi and grading standards of just 30 years ago would result in mass flunkings. Failure on tests apparently means the test, not the test taker, is found wanting.
What follows is the erosion of meritocracy and competence. And that reality is starting to explain the great unraveling: why our bridges take decades to build rather than a few years, why train tracks are not laid after a decade of “planning,”and why to drive down a once brilliantly engineered, but now crammed and dangerous road is to revisit the “Road Warrior” of film. Sam Bankman-Fried and Elizabeth Holmes are the apt characters of our age.
Institutions That Went Rogue
The FBI has imploded. It has all but become a Third World retrieval and investigatory service for the Democratic Party. Its last four directors either have lied, misled, or pleaded amnesia while under oath.
In 2016, the bureau with the Democratic National Committee sought to destroy the integrity of an election by fabricating a Russian collusion hoax. Its continuance and coverup ultimately required FBI agents and lawyers to alter legal documents, to lie under oath, to destroy subpoenaed phone data, and to outsource illegal suppression of First Amendment rights to Silicon Valley contractors. The nation now fears there isn’t anything the FBI might not do.
As we became hyper-legal with Trump, we are more sublegal with the entire Biden family. For a decade, with impunity, it gorged multimillion profits from selling the “Big Guy”/Mr. “10 Percent” Joe Biden’s name and access—sums for the most part hidden and likely not completely taxed. We all know it is true, and we all know the FBI and Department of Justice know it is true, and we know further that the truth means nothing.
This self-satisfied generation constantly brags of transforming elections. But it will be known more as the destroyer of a once hallowed Election Day. Not so long ago 70-80 percent of the electorate took the trouble of voting under transparent protocols. We replaced it in most states with 60-70 percent of the votes without audit and the product of vote harvesting and curing. Our generation, in just a couple of years, destroyed Election Day voting and Election Night counting.
The New Medievalism
Despite different calibrations, various data reveal what is self-evident to the naked eye. The American middle class is shrinking, if not insidiously sliding into indebted peasantry. Westerners are regressing and by design, now deciding daily whether to top up the tank, turn up the heat, or buy beef.
Society is also bifurcating. A tiny powerful minority has more leverage than any other elite in the history of civilization. And a large underclass of subsidized poor shares with the wealthy a disdain for the struggling middle class, the old bulwark of democracy.
In place of knightly penances and chivalric oaths, our elite takes Bankman-Fried-like vows to “fight climate change,” support “transitioning,” and ensure “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” But like their Medieval brethren, they do so only by first enhancing, not endangering, their own careers.
For the ruling class, prep schools, alphabetic certifications from tony universities, and revolving-door résumés are modern versions of having an abbey on site, a stately coat-of-arms, or taking vows from the correct religious orders. Otherwise, it is the same medievalism masked by pretension.
Our Rhine and Danube
America is rapidly resembling something like wide-open fifth-century A.D. Rome, when its traditional inviolable northern borders on the Rhine and Danube rivers vanished. Thousands of unassimilated tribes crisscrossed as they pleased on the premise that no one among their overripe, soft hosts could or would dare stop them.
Joe Biden just remarked that he is too busy to visit the southern border. And why not? There may have been roughly 5 million illegal aliens who have crossed it since his inauguration. He earns contempt both from those who try to enforce the border and those who cross illegally over it.
Biden surrealistically trashes Trump’s supposed archaic idea of a wall—always without noting self-evident truths about it: anywhere Biden stopped the wall or has not replaced prior rickety fencing, there are the most porous and trafficked entry points.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ various mendacities that the border is “secure” translate to allowing as many million aliens as possible to break the law to enter the United States in the four years of the Biden experiment. The administration sees itself in a race to create a one-off window of historic laxity through which millions can pour in—before a comatose nation wakes up and shuts it down.
We are approaching an historic 50 million residents who were not born in the United States, and of various legal and illegal statuses. In a sane world, we might survive the challenge—if newcomers had all come legally, learned the customs and language of their desired new home, were audited and queued by some logical meritocratic process, and were quickly assimilated and integrated by a confident host population that assumed any who wished to live in America surely desired help in becoming an American and felt gratitude to their hosts.
Instead, there is only chaos—and it is by design.
The legal immigrant waiting in line to enter the United States is considered a fool, while illegal aliens and residents instead quickly absorb three messages from their hosts. First, illegal residents will often be treated better than American citizens, at least in terms of lax law enforcement, various legal exemptions and amnesties, and unaudited entitlements.
Second, many will soon learn they can assume immediate moral claims against the majority population of their new home, who can be seen as racist oppressors and obligated to offer reparatory concessions in terms of hiring, admissions, and entitlements.
Third, too many will quickly learn, Ilhan Omar-style, to harbor a quiet derision for their benefactors. Their contempt is not due to Americans’ dearth of magnanimity and generosity, much less to “systemic racism.” Instead, their American hosts are silently assumed to be naïve, timid, overly solicitous, malleable, easily manipulated, rolled, and conned—especially when it is understood that if the roles were reversed and the entrants were the hosts, they would have a different notion of borders.
The idea of 330 million American citizens of different incidental races and ethnicities united by a common American identity of shared values, customs, and traditions is all but mocked. In its place is arising something like the former Yugoslavia—an undefined mishmash of competing and increasingly hostile tribal interests, with residents sorting themselves out into red and blue states that eventually will lead to two antithetical Americas.
So once assumed services, customs, institutions, and expectations are eroding—from a safe walk to a government office in a large city’s downtown, to a visit to the local public emergency room in extremis for humane, rapid, and competent care, to a clean, safe subway ride in a major city, or watching election returns conclude on Election Night.
A Nation of Thieves?
In a nearby Home Depot the other day, there were two long lines to check out. The other six were closed, as was the largest exit with several self-check-out counters.
Why? When asked the clerk whispered that the theft rate is high in the store and that from time to time it shuts down various exits to limit stealing or perhaps to confuse calculating thieves. I added that I had learned that almost any large item in a box purchased at Home Depot had to be first opened to ensure that key parts like knobs, wires, and screws had not been ripped off.
A local Walmart stopped its 24-hour service; again, the clerk said it was due to unsustainable looting during the early morning hours.
I also went to Walgreens and Rite-Aid recently. Much of what anyone wanted, from razors to antihistamines, was under lock-and-key. None of this was true just a decade ago. I live in a rural area among small towns—a world away from Los Angeles and San Francisco where smash-and-grab robberies and unapologetic looting have caused the mass closures of pharmacies and all-service stores.
Exemptions given thefts under $950 in some states may be the culprit. Others cite the post-George Floyd riots and the climate of unpunished street criminality. Maybe years of mask-wearing made us forget who normally had used masks and for what reasons.
Weaponized activist district attorneys and virtue-signaling mayors also signal to criminals that property crimes don’t warrant arrest, much less conviction, much less incarceration.
But whatever the cause, a once famously lawful America has become a veritable land of thieves. The criminal is all but exempt. And the middle class and poor suffer as a result from poor services, higher prices, reduced hours, and fewer stores.
We know the solution is to deter crime by assured punishment for the guilty. But the majority of Americans either cannot or will not demand a return to sanity for fear of some sort of undefined pushback from their elites. Pick your charge: “racism,” “privilege,” “bias,” “discrimination.” Any will do.
We have seen lots of cultural revolutions in this country, but never one that was so singularly focused on razing the foundations of America—until now. Yes, there is a lot of ruin in great nations. But even America is by now running low on it.