Michael Anton’s new book, The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return is the sort of book no one in his right mind enjoys reading. I don’t mean that it’s badly written or badly argued—just the opposite, in fact. But what the author has to say—about matters involving, quite literally, life and death—is not pleasant to hear.
Our country seems to be coming apart. Even if President Trump wins reelection in November, it will mean—at best—a few extra years of breathing space in order to . . . do what exactly? Well, forestall for a while a tyranny of vindictive leftism unleashing its pent-up anger and aggression. That’s not meaningless. But one of the sobering things Anton shows is just how bad our condition is, and how difficult it will be to restore any semblance of constitutional government.
Full disclosure: I’ve known Mike Anton a long time. We were graduate students together in Claremont a few decades ago. At one point during our student years, Mike (who loves to cook) was renting a basement room with no kitchen, and used to come over to my place periodically to make a home-cooked dinner. The food was great but, holy cow, what a mess he made! He would use every pot and pan I had, and it took a long time to clean up.
To give this story a relevant point, it was a fair trade-off. We both got something out of the deal, to which we both consented. Plus, of course, as friends we enjoyed hanging out and indulging in a symposium of conversation along with the banquet he prepared.
This is actually a good metaphor for the theme of Anton’s book—except that my pleasant personal memory has been twisted into a national nightmare.
The Left has invaded America’s domestic establishment, cleaned out the pantry, and created a disgusting mess of chaotic lawlessness. There’s just one problem: the glorious utopian feast they promised never materialized.
Well, that’s not quite true. As Anton explains in excruciating detail, the liberal oligarchy has created a very nice lifestyle . . . for itself, while impoverishing and endangering the rest of us. They’ve made a nice meal all right, but they are eating it all themselves; and even flaunting that fact. This, in one sense, may be their worst harm: poisoning the civic friendship that was once the heart of America’s peace, prosperity, and freedom.
None of this is a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. “Our elites,” Anton observes devastatingly, “love themselves but hate their country.”
Anton is well-read and has real-world experience, with stints in the New York world of corporate finance and as a senior national security official in the Trump White House. He puts his education to good use. Even before the novelist Tom Wolfe’s name gets mentioned on page 26, I could see the exuberant new journalism that Anton learned from Wolfe on display in his electric Kool-Aid prose, describing how the Left has mau-maued California (his case study) over the last 50 years. Liberal Democrats turned a near-paradise into a dirty, congested, dangerous “anarcho-tyranny.” This latter term, which Anton borrows from the late Sam Francis, refers to the new feudalism created by our leftist oligarchy. On the one hand, zealous and almost arbitrary prosecution of the “laws” is imposed on the many, while the ruling class gets to do pretty much whatever it wants.
Likewise, a discerning reader can see hints of Anton’s previously published criticisms of the “dissident Right,” and its leading spokesman, the mysterious Bronze Age Pervert. These right-wing critics of the American founders attribute today’s egalitarian social engineering to the Declaration of Independence. (Wrong!) Over-reacting to our clown world of political correctness, they pine for a mythical aristocracy. Anton writes:
If our present system were someday to give way and some group of former Americans were forced to reconstitute a functioning polity of their own, the leaders would be unwise to do so on the basis of an alleged natural or divine title to rule. [Pretensions to] natural aristocratic superiority will be—and be seen as—nothing more than what the kids call “LARPing” (“live action role playing,” or dress-up). It’s hard to envision any former American accepting the assertion of his own permanent inferiority with good grace.
Considering what would happen “if our present system were someday to give way” is the heart of this book.
Anton describes the credo of our leftist oligarchy as “liberation from all restraints, sneering disdain for tradition and Christianity, contempt and hatred for America and its history, recasting of whites as the archvillains of their country’s story.” That’s great for virtue-signaling, but not so good for maintaining a stable, functioning nation. It’s hard to see how the elites can sustain their wealth and privilege while destroying the conditions of a productive economy.
Assuming something has to give, Anton lays out a variety of possible scenarios. These are fascinating and hard to summarize, but include ongoing, low-intensity conflict between blue-America power centers and red-America resistors, Caesarism (“something between monarchy and tyranny”), or a major calamity that really breaks the nation apart into a multitude of city-states.
To avoid these outcomes, Anton lays out a plan for what might be done during a second Trump term—a long-shot plan that Anton pretty clearly sees as wishful thinking, even if Trump wins. Thus, he does not end the book by rallying his readers to that fight. Instead, he concludes by speculating about a more or less peaceful geographic separation and reshuffling of red and blue populations, but notes somberly that this would require “an act of statesmanship on the grandest scale since the Civil War.”
Without disputing the accuracy of Anton’s political diagnosis (which almost reads like an autopsy) of America’s ills, I don’t share his gloominess. Perhaps this is more a difference of temperament than analytic judgment. Although on the latter, here’s one example of how or why Anton might be too pessimistic. In discussing the various sub-factions that support the ruling class, he analyzes “Freeloaders,” “Wokerati,” and “Avengers.” But he overlooks what I have argued is perhaps the biggest segment: the Fashionistas (to use a term that imitates Anton’s clever descriptors).
Many people who vote liberal and parrot politically correct slogans have no real commitment to the ruling class agenda. They are just being trendy, imitating the popular opinions they hear from famous actors, athletes, and musicians.
Given that Anton is a close student of Machiavelli and Montesquieu, it is bit surprising he does not give more attention to the significance of fashionable opinion, which is, of course, notoriously fickle and shallow. There is no reason to suppose that this popular opinion has to remain unalterably fixed. (Think about the immensely popular action movies that Hollywood produced during the Reagan years.)
I don’t want to overstate this. Our culture is more degraded in almost every way since the 1980s. I only mean to point out that popular opinion—like politics in general—is changeable, and can change again in sudden and unexpected ways.
The last line of the book asks plaintively if there exists a statesman “with the justice, moderation, talent, courage, and wisdom” to save the country. Is that the right attitude? Is our fate really out of our hands? I’m with the Spartan king Leonidas. Confronted with the vastly superior forces of the Persian empire, which demanded that the Spartans surrender their arms, Leonidas answered, “molon labe”—“Come and take them.” If the Left wants my liberties, molon labe.