In the uneasy months following 9/11, the Bush Administration provoked a minor controversy when it announced the name of a new office dedicated to protecting the United States from terrorism and other threats. “Homeland security” had unsavory associations: the Nazis often spoke of Heimat, which was also used in the 1920s and 1930s by an Austrian right-wing paramilitary group, the Heimwehr or Heimatschutz. Even Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s secretary of defense, who had been in discussions about the term months before its introduction, had been discomfited. “The word ‘homeland’ is a strange word,” he wrote in a memo on February 27, 2001. “ ‘Homeland’ Defense sounds more German than American.” Barbara J. Fields, a historian at Columbia University, predicted in 2002 that the term would “remain a resident alien rather than a naturalized citizen in American usage.”
Seventeen years and a television series later, “homeland” no longer unsettles. The Department of Homeland Security has a $40 billion budget, 240,000 employees, and a Cabinet seat. Last summer, as journalists, academics, and intellectuals debated whether a fascist had invaded the White House, a bill reauthorizing DHS sailed through the House of Representatives by a bipartisan vote of 386 to 41. The phrase has found a home in the United States. It is a naturalized citizen.
One of the benefits of turning fifty, which I did in November, is that your memories become useful in unexpected ways. Throughout most of the Bush years, I was in my thirties — old enough to remember a time when there wasn’t a Department of Homeland Security, young enough to feel the novelties of the era. Middle age provides you a different perch. You get to watch, in real time, the shock of the new get absorbed by the soft cushions of the American tradition.
When Bush left office in 2009, he was widely loathed, with an approval rating of 33 percent. Today, 61 percent of the population approves of him, with much of that increase coming from Democrats and independents. A majority of voters under thirty-five view him favorably, which they didn’t while he was president. So jarring is the switch that Will Ferrell was inspired to reprise his impersonation of Bush on Saturday Night Live. “I just wanted to address my fellow Americans tonight,” he said, “and remind you guys that I was really bad. Like, historically not good.”
This is how a member of the younger generation viewed Bush in 2003, after the United States had invaded Iraq on the basis of false claims that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction:
The damage to this country and our body politic is staggering. . . . For our Government to be lying to us as they invoke our ideals in their rhetoric sickens me to the core of my being. It means something has gone so rotten. . . . It’s the bile you swallow in the back of your throat but keeps rising back up. It is a pattern, a pattern of cruelty, trickery, deceit, crass politics, and manipulative actions. It’s something that I can no longer ignore and it is absolutely shattering my optimism. . . . And that is a terrible thing, when our Government destroys the idealism of our young.
Strong stuff, suggesting the kind of experience you don’t easily recover from. If such feelings of betrayal don’t overwhelm you with a corrosive cynicism, inducing you to withdraw from politics, they provoke an incipient realism or an irrepressible radicalism. The Gulf War, which happened when I was twenty-three, set me on the latter path, guided, I’d like to think, by some sense of the former. But whether one opts for realism or radicalism or both, such great disillusionment would seem to preclude making statements like this, fifteen years later:
I’ve never seen anything as cynical in politics as Republicans spending four months refusing to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program, then attaching reauthorization to another controversial bill, then blaming Democrats for not supporting CHIP. It’s breathtaking.
You get to lose your innocence only once. But Ezra Klein, the author of both these statements, loses his every night as he scans the day’s report of the latest Republican Party outrage. American liberalism is also a party of the born-again.
The United States of Amnesia: true to form, we don’t remember who coined the phrase. It’s been attributed to Gore Vidal and to Philip Rahv, though it also appears in a syndicated column from 1948. But more than forgetfulness is at work in our ceremonies of innocence repeatedly drowned. And while it’s tempting to chalk up these rituals to a native simplicity or a preternatural naïveté — a parody of a Henry James novel, in which you get soiled by crossing the Potomac rather than the Atlantic — even our most knowing observers perform them.
The distance of a decade, for example, was all it took for Philip Roth to completely rewrite his experience of the Nixon Administration. There was a “sense,” Roth said of those years,
of living in a country with a government morally out of control and wholly in business for itself. Reading the morning New York Times and the afternoon New York Post, watching the seven and then again the eleven o’clock TV news — all of which I did ritualistically — became for me like living on a steady diet of Dostoevsky. . . . One even began to use the word “America” as though it was the name not of the place where one had been raised and to which one had a patriotic attachment, but of a foreign invader that had conquered the country and with whom one refused, to the best of one’s strength and ability, to collaborate. Suddenly America had turned into “them.”
That was in 1974, when Watergate and the Vietnam War were not yet a memory. In 1984, with Reagan straddling the horizon, Roth recalled the era differently: “Watergate made life interesting when I wasn’t writing, but from nine to five every day I didn’t think too much about Nixon or about Vietnam.” And while Roth had been unsparing about Nixon in 1974 — “Of course there have been others as venal and lawless in American politics, but even a Joe McCarthy was more identifiable as human clay than this guy is” — in 2017 Nixon had become, for Roth, a benign counter to Trump. Neither Nixon nor Bush
was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.
Donald Trump is making America great again — not by his own hand but through the labor of his critics, who posit a more perfect union less as an aspiration for the future than as the accomplished fact of a reimagined past.
There can be an appalling complexity to innocence,” the political scientist Louis Hartz observed in his classic 1955 study The Liberal Tradition in America, “especially if your point of departure is guilt.” That nexus of guilelessness and guilt, depth and innocence, is usually Roth country, but in this instance we’ll have to take the master’s tools and use them ourselves.
Ever since the 2016 presidential election, we’ve been warned against normalizing Trump. That fear of normalization misstates the problem, though. It’s never the immediate present, no matter how bad, that gets normalized — it’s the not-so-distant past. Because judgments of the American experiment obey a strict economy, in which every critique demands an outlay of creed and every censure of the present is paid for with a rehabilitation of the past, any rejection of the now requires a normalization of the then.
We all have a golden age in our pockets, ready as a wallet. Some people invent the memory of more tenderhearted days to dramatize and criticize present evil. Others reinvent the past less purposefully. Convinced the present is a monster, a stranger from nowhere, or an alien from abroad, they look to history for parent-protectors, the dragon slayers of generations past. Still others take strange comfort from the notion that theirs is an unprecedented age, with novel enemies and singular challenges. Whether strategic or sincere, revisionism encourages a refusal of the now.
Or so we believe.
The truth is that we’re captives, not captains, of this strategy. We think the contrast of a burnished past allows us to see the burning present, but all it does is keep the fire going, and growing. Confronting the indecent Nixon, Roth imagines a better McCarthy. Confronting the indecent Trump, he imagines a better Nixon. At no point does he recognize that he’s been fighting the same monster all along — and losing. Overwhelmed by the monster he’s currently facing, sure that it is different from the monster no longer in view, Roth loses sight of the surrounding terrain. He doesn’t see how the rehabilitation of the last monster allows the front line to move rightward, the new monster to get closer to the territory being defended. That may not be a problem for Roth, reader of Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again.” (Though even Beckett concluded with the injunction to “fail better.”) It is a problem for us, followers of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Two summers ago, Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq, electrified the Democratic National Convention with his declaration that Trump had “sacrificed nothing” for his country. A more dignified politician would have responded with a somber message of gratitude and consolation to the Khan family. Trump took a different tack. Wondering aloud why Khan’s wife had stood quietly by as her husband spoke, Trump suggested that she had been silenced by the alien force of Islam.
James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, was ready with his response. He reached back to that moment in 1954 when Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had been terrorizing the military for months with his mad hunt for signs of subversion, was laid low by Joseph Welch, a Boston attorney serving as the Army’s counsel. “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty,” Welch said. Summoning the full force of the nation’s pent-up rage, Welch thundered, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Americans love this moment between Welch and McCarthy. It’s not just drama, it’s drama that hurts: within six months, McCarthy would be censured by the Senate; less than three years later, he’d be dead. When liberals like Fallows invoke this moment as they rebuke the right, they’re hoping to inflict a similar blow. Perhaps that’s why Fallows, having used it once against Trump, chose to use it again, less than two years later, against the Republicans in alliance with him. “Have you no sense of decency?” Fallows asked in January 2018. “It is a question worth pondering, in the shithole era.” Someone as sensitive to language as Fallows should know that you only get to play the Welch card once. Play it twice, in the same game, against the same players, and your incredulity seems strained, your outrage forced. It is a punch divested of all power.
But if it is force that liberals seek, the blast of wrath and righteousness that sends the indecent reeling, the backstory to Welch’s confrontation suggests they may be going about it the wrong way. In the years before Welch’s salvo, McCarthy had been riding high, aided and abetted by the most senior members of the GOP. McCarthy was the Republicans’ useful idiot, helping return Congress to their control in 1952. By 1954, he was no longer useful. He was just an idiot — and a liability. Not only was he going after the military, he was turning on Republicans too. He had done their dirty work; now he was doing them damage. The ism could stay; the man had to go.
Welch’s broadside was less an announcement of McCarthy’s indecency, about which nobody had any doubt, than a signal of his diminished utility, a report of his weakness and isolation. Declarations of indecency are like that: they don’t slay monsters; they’re an all-clear signal, a statement that the monster is dying or dead.
I’ve been reading and writing about conservatism since the summer of 2000, when I interviewed William F. Buckley Jr., Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz for a Lingua Franca article. I was surprised to hear how discontented these elder statesmen were now that the Cold War was over. It was almost as if they longed for the United States — or at least themselves — to be back in the grip of murderous anxiety, ready to embark on a terrible rampage. Since then, what has always struck me is how turbulent and intemperate, how savage and ferocious, the dream life of the right truly is — even among, especially among, its most staid figures.
When Trump became a contender for the White House, I saw him as an extension or fulfillment of the conservative movement rather than a break with it. Almost everything people found outrageous and objectionable about his candidacy — the racism, the contempt for institutions, the ambient violence, the hostility to the rule of law — I’d been seeing in the right for years. Little in Trump surprised me, except for the fact that he won.
Whenever I said this, people got angry with me. They still do. For months, now years, I puzzled over that anger. My wife explained it to me recently: in making the case for continuity between past and present, I sound complacent about the now. I sound like I’m saying that nothing is wrong with Trump, that everything will work out. I thought I was giving people a steadying anchor, a sense that they — we — had faced this threat before, a sense that this is the right-wing monster we’ve been fighting all along, since Nixon and Reagan and George W. Bush. Turns out I was removing their ballast, setting them afloat in the intermittent and inconstant air.
Historical consciousness can be a conservative force, lessening the sting of urgency, deflating the demands of the now, leaving us adrift in a sea of relativism. But it need not be, as Lincoln discovered in his second inaugural address.
Yet, if God wills that it [the Civil War] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Telling a story of how present trespass derives from past crime or even original sin can inspire a more strenuous refusal, a more profound assault on the now. It can fuel a desire to be rid of not just the moment but the moments that made this moment, to ensure that we never have to face this moment again. But only if we acknowledge what we’re seldom prepared to admit: that the monster has been with us all along.