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The short answer: Sometimes.
Here’s one example. By 527 A.D., the Eastern Roman Empire at Constantinople seemed fated to collapse like the West had a near century prior. The Persian Sassanids were gobbling up Byzantine lands in the east. Almost all of old Rome west of Greece had already been lost.
A growing and unsustainable administrative state exercised near control of Constantinople. Christianity was splintering into irrelevant factionalism. The law was a selective mess.
Justinian was certainly an unlikely emperor: an outsider of peasant stock from the northern frontier, an Eastern Latin rather than Greek speaker (and likely the last native Latin-speaking emperor), who would marry an infamous but shrewd courtesan, Theodora.
Yet in some 38 years of sometimes brutal rule, Justinian through the leadership of his brilliant generals, Belisarius and Narses, stabilized the eastern borders. He reclaimed for eastern Rome North Africa, Sicily, much of Italy, and some of Spain, often through small, well-organized armies and prudent alliances. He reformed the bureaucracy, systematized Roman law (Codex Justinianus), and built the magnificent Christian cathedral of Hagia Sophia—the largest church in the world for a thousand years.
Justinian might have done even far more had not a devastating three-year epidemic of bubonic plague spiked and wiped out a quarter of the empire’s population. The millions of losses created a permanent manpower shortage that left the Byzantines vulnerable to relentless Gothic enemies in Western Europe—and ultimately, a century and a half later, the conquests of new Islamic armies in the Middle East and North Africa.
The outsider Justinian’s agendas were those of many past reformers and restorers: apply the law equally and rationally, control government finances, restore the value of the currency, unite and inspire the population with iconic buildings and new infrastructure, reform and enhance religious practice, and offer predictable and steady rule.
Out of a Rut
History is replete with leaders who wish to perpetuate the status quo and to manage supposed permanent decline, but less frequently witnesses a few successful “great again” reformers of various stripes and agendas, both elected and the more ruthless (e.g., Pericles, Alexander, Augustus, Constantine, Charlemagne, Elizabeth, Catherine the Great, Joseph II, Lincoln, Churchill).
In our own time, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are the most notable restorers. Both came into power at a time when the English-speaking West was considered near spent.
A much talked about “crisis of confidence” and “malaise” had led to general British and American depression about the costs of containing global communism. No one seemed to know what to do about the economy—given stubborn stagflation, low growth, high unemployment and inflation, and a rising “misery” index.
Oil shortages and rising prices were proof of “peak” oil in a dependent West—and permanent reliance on corrupt Middle-East petrodollar kingdoms. Radical Islam and Middle East terrorism were on the rise. But then so were ascendant “Tiger” economies in Asia that seemed in perpetuity would make cars, steel and just plain stuff better and cheaper than in Detroit or Manchester. The cultural residue of the Sixties made any call for reformation and renewal seem quaint and hokey.
The United States would no doubt follow Britain’s postwar trajectory. Declinism—supposedly due to moral nihilism, debt, spiritual emptiness, permanent energy shortages, Cold War militarism, laziness, statism, corruption—was thematic in think tanks and current in-the-know books.
Popular culture and politics offered no avenue of optimism. Remember the age of polyester, platform shoes, bell bottoms, falsetto disco, “Mork and Mindy,” Watergate, Chevettes, Gremlins, Pacers, and Pintos—and choppers leaving the roof of the Saigon embassy, oil boycotts and gas lines, the Yom Kippur War, the Munich Olympics, and hostages in Iran.
After the end of the roaring 1960s and late 1970s, both Thatcher and Reagan were written off as near kooks, advocating strong defense, renewed nationalism, optimism, traditionalism, limited government, lower taxes, smaller government, and free-market deregulation—as pathways to a new muscular Britain and renewed superpower United States.
The results of their revolutions were the collapse of global communism, the eventual restoration of Anglo-American international finance, recalibrated American entrepreneurism, and energy renaissances. Certainly the United States today in terms of technology, defense, agriculture, fossil fuel production, and higher education towers over its competitors in ways that would have seemed impossible in the 1970s.
The idea of a Trump economic restoration in 2015-2016 seemed equally absurd. Larry Summers had assured us that annualized 3 percent GDP growth was the stuff of “fantasies.” He predicted instead a recession at 18 months of the Trump term, while Paul Krugman insisted on a market collapse in early 2017 with dubious chances of recovery.
We could never “drill our way out” of an energy crisis—so Obama had insisted and wrote off the very idea of a manufacturing rebound as some myth requiring a “magic wand.” Massive illegal immigration was a permanent fact of life, as was the new demography and identity politics. We were apparently to live with the Iran Deal and though not spoken, an eventual nuclear Iran. Nuclear missiles pointed at the West Coast from North Korea required “strategic patience.”
“Lead from behind” diplomacy relied on an international consensus of the sort illustrated by the Paris Accord and permanent refugee status of the Palestinians—as well as avoidance of disruptive moves likes leveraging NATO partners to meet their promised contributions, moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, considering taboo tariffs to trim China’s huge surpluses and its assumption that its ascendance to global hegemony was a matter of when, not if.
Dilemmas of Restoration
Trump had lots of assets and advantages in seeking to restore U.S. power and prosperity. American research universities dominate global education. American frackers had produced more natural gas and oil than ever thought possible. Agriculture had never been more productive, and the United States had unused leverage and economic clout to recalibrate trade deals and alliances in a more symmetrical fashion.
The dilemma of Trump’s restoration was similar to that of many radical reformers: being an abject outsider meant he was beholden to few insiders and was largely immune from stifling and ossifying establishment groupthink. Yet his pariah status also ensured little inside help, lots of status quo deep state venom, and a learning curve required to rein in the chariot of a huge and dangerous bureaucracy.
No one knows how this latest historical effort to make great again a perceived ailing state will play out. On the plus side, Trump has sought to restore traditional jurisprudence through impressive judicial nominations. He has praised rather than lectured business and helped to free the animal spirits of capitalism. Trump cut rather than raised taxes, deregulated rather than stymied entrepreneurialism, and expanded energy leasing on federal lands and green-lighted pipeline construction. His current foreign policy team of Bolton, Mattis, and Pompeo is impressive and seeks to restore U.S. deterrence that will bring far more stability to the world than mushy lead from behind subordination. A possible Chinese agreement to cut their trade surpluses and play by international trading rules, and a North Korean guarantee of denuclearization would be the most significant foreign policy developments since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Where has Trump’s MAGA agenda stalled?
A Republican majority House and Senate squandered a rare chance for radical change between 2017-2018 by failing to repeal and reform Obamacare, failing to build a border wall, failing to pass an immigration law that would secure the border and ensure only meritocratic, legal, diverse and measured immigration, and failing to stop out of control spending and debt by addressing unsustainable entitlements.
Trump and the Republican Party also have underestimated the effects of radical changes and protocols in voting laws, such as voter harvesting in California that has made Election Day totals largely irrelevant. Trump has neither chipped away at the 90-percent negative coverage of the media nor yet made it irrelevant.
Trump’s rare winning efforts at humor and self-deprecation (“I never had a glass of alcohol. I never had alcohol, for whatever reason. Can you imagine if I had? What a mess I would be. I would be the world’s worst.”), and real empathy (our miners, our vets, our farmers) become overshadowed by “horseface” and “Schitt” tweets that turn off once won-over squishy suburbanites.
Inept Justice Department decisions led to the venomous Mueller investigation that ignored real wrongdoing as it chased a Trump collusion unicorn. In some sense, if Trump’s election as the first president without either political or military experience was unprecedented, equally unparalleled was a 90 percent hostile media, coup-like attempts to abort a presidency through absurd resorts to the Logan Act, Emoluments Clause, the 25th Amendment, lawsuits, impeachment writs, and non-stop celebrity talk of assassination, and death and destruction to the Trump family. Almost any other man Trump’s age would long ago have collapsed under the stress and venom.
Trump’s Uncertain Fate
The future of Trump’s solid two years of achievement is uncertain. The more his economic policies and foreign affairs bring results, the more the hatred of him grows, both inside and outside his own party.
So Trump’s three signature long-term agendas hang in the balance—checking China’s often ruthless rise to global commercial and eventual military supremacy, growing an economy that includes preeminent American manufacturing, energy production, and industrial output, and ending the idea of a bicoastal elite adjudicating politics and culture for a supposedly backward and declining traditional interior.
No one knows quite how to fathom Trump’s paradox. His extraordinary powers of resilience and retaliation stave off the constant assaults from progressives and the media, and such defiance inspires a red-state America. Yet so far Trump’s caustic retorts also stymie winning over enough swing and minority voters to achieve a 51 percent ruling majority to ensure his ideas of restored greatness.
For now, Trump’s fate may be in the hands of others—as it was in 2016 when what put him over the top was wide scale repugnance at the thought of a corrupt President Clinton and all that her victory would entail. The final take-over of the Democratic Party by progressive extremists might well empower Trump to reelection.
Yet it is a scary idea that the fate of making America great again might hinge on the nihilism of the Democratic Party.
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