On 5 October 2021, the Danube Institute welcomed ‘another conservative exile of Britain’ as Gerard Baker, editor-at-large of The Wall Street Journal, was referred to by John O’Sullivan, director of the Institute. Mr Baker was invited to speak about his new book – What Went Wrong? – How America Destroyed Itself and the World It Built in a Generation – and How It Might Still Be Saved.
According to John O’Sullivan, Gerard Baker—who delivered a crisp and sharp address concentrating on the interior causes of the current crisis in the United States—transformed The Wall Street Journal into a ‘crisper, sharper, better-written’ newspaper. Mr Baker contrasted the ‘pride and confidence’ of the unipolar moment when America seemed not only the geopolitical, but the moral winner of the Cold War with the current state of affairs – destroyed statues, campuses in turmoil, and a sizable inner political movement that pictures the US as a ‘demonic force’ of the world, founded on and perpetuating racial and sexual oppression. He elaborated on the turmoil of the last few years, the botched handling of the COVID-19 crisis, the uncertainty around the presidential elections, and the latest tumultuous failure: the retreat from Afghanistan. But he avoided the broad apocalyptic predictions of other analysts and warned his audience: let us not take this moment as the equivalent of the fall of Rome of other civilisations. The United States will be—by every prediction—a major force on the world stage in coming years, but this is indeed a moment fraught with crisis and inner uncertainty for the country.
He named two major causes—and symptoms—of the current crisis of the United States
One is the ongoing ‘cultural revolution’ based on an ‘updated Marxism’, originating from the college campuses of the United States. This movement claims that oppression is primarily expressed among identities having the most oppressive relations between sexes, races and ethnical communities as the most crucial. He concentrated on the organizational roots of the movement of the cultural revolution and started his analysis with the 1990s. While these deconstructive ideas did not originate in the decade in question, they indeed gained traction in that decade because the college attendance rate skyrocketed in the United States at that time. In turn, the job market was unprepared to offer suitable positions for these new, white-collar masses. Then these groups retreated to the defence of victimhood ideologies and to the safe spaces of campuses from the rude reality, and later formed a critical elements of the crisis of America. Mr Baker noted that there is racial injustice, and the remnants of unfinished work concerning the darker elements of the past of the United States, but these forces misplaced their emphasis, taking certain errors of the ‘American Project’ as crucial, foundational evils of the country.
The campus movement is just one element of the crisis, because the other was identified by Mr Baker as the inner rot of the cultural, political and corporate elite of the United States. These leading groups have lost their connection to and faith in the national community, and thus become the servants of their own group interests, which do not coincide with the needs of the United States for the most part.
And at the intersection of the disgruntled, white-collar community and the elite are the media, which were taken over by radical idealogues and the out-of-touch elite, and contributed greatly to the confusion and inner conflicts of the United States. As Mr Baker noted, it was unthinkable for a major news outlet, such as The New York Times to censor a United States senator, most probably pointing to the case of Tom Cotton, Republican senator of Arkansas, whose opinion article was deleted last summer from the aforementioned newspaper.
These forces all formed the ‘combustible material’ which was ignited by the cruel death of George Floyd and then shook America in its foundations last summer and autumn, abated and aided by the Democratic establishment and the media. The speaker, as an honest conservative, noted that the handling of the outcome of elections by Donald J. Trump was another undeniable factor in the crisis, who questioned the basic legitimacy of the American political institutions. He reminded that while the voting process had suspicious elements, the judicial system could not find any critical errors that could alter the outcome of the vote in any districts. But he reminded that while the storefronts in major cities were boarded up before Election Day, this was not because of the warnings of right-wing violence, but rather because of the threats of major riots from the Left. The political Left also played a part in alienating Donald Trump from its political opponents with the unprecedented smear campaign that the media and corporate world waged against the President during the whole course of the administration. He explained that the ‘woke’ onslaught of corporate America is mostly an evasion from more crucial questions regarding the role of the corporate class in America. As the corporations are to blame for the grave inequality inside the country, they choose to emasculate their negative role with taking on every possible kind of social justice brand in order to be left alone by activists in the middle of the new cultural revolution.
Mr Baker closed with remarks on the ‘dystopic, mask-wielding, mandate-waving’ handling of the COVID-19 crisis of the current administration, pointing out that today it is not without risks professing the right nature of American values and that the core of the American project is good and resilient to any grave errors committed by its followers.
The audience offered a couple of interesting insights into the topic of the lecture. Calum T. Nicholson, a visiting fellow of the Danube Institute, noted that apparently the neo-liberal currents of the past decades ignited the wrath of both the far Left and far Right, and thus neo-liberalism can be named as an important cause of the current crisis. John Prout, a financial specialist and moderator of the event said that the crisis of confidence in US elites has just recently been heightened after several resignations at the Federal Reserve, following suspicions of insider trading of stocks. Mr Baker noted in response that these resignations may at least ‘draw the poison’ of the confidence crisis, and he coincided with Mr Nicholson in naming the neo-liberal political decisions as one of the key elements of the destabilization of America. He explained that the enforcement of certain group rights went to such extremes that it managed to radicalize whole masses of the nation. Referring to other questions, he assuaged the audience that the current unemployment wave, while shocking, have in fact its silver linings: the United States apparently gained a lot in productivity, as its currently has the same economic output as in the first quarter of 2020, but with 9 million less workers.
As suitable closing remarks, Mr Baker, answering a question by Mr Alvini-Mario Fantini, explained that the United States is in great need of a political force with ‘economic populism’, but social conservatism and a clear stance against the ‘woke’ ideologies. Thus, the conservative community has to evolve as well and find new answers to the new political problems, but holding onto its core values as well, until America finds her way out of the current crises.
Dániel Farkas, trainee at Danube Institute