"The Age of Illusions: How American Squandered its Cold War Victory": A Review

By David Chamberlain posted 08-19-2020 04:56:11 PM


The Age of Illusions:  How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory, by Andrew Bacevich. New York:  Metropolitan Books 2020.  236 pages.  $17.99 hardcover.  

Although Andrew Bacevich came late to academia after a long career in the U.S. Army, he has nevertheless produced an impressive array of books and articles dedicated to modern American history.  The latest work in his oeuvre, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered its Cold War Victory, examines the period from the end of the Cold War through the first years of the Trump administration. Like much of his earlier writing, this book advocates for a more modest American foreign policy and offers a tonic of advice for its enervated citizenry. The Age of Illusions begins with a question posed by Harry Angstrom, the protagonist of John Updike’s Rabbit trilogy, “Without the Cold War what’s the point of being an American?”  Harry’s question, of course, points out that the ideological struggle with the Soviet Union provided Americans with a sense of national purpose and played an essential role in the formation of American identity.  After the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the United States was left bereft of an ideological foil and Bacevich maintains that consequently the nation lost its cohesive national narrative and has since failed to construct a new consensus that commands broad support.  The Age of Illusions is Bacevich’s provocative account of the rise and fall of the Cold War consensus, the attempt by elites to construct a replacement built on neo-liberalism and military interventionism, and the ensuing revolt against it by disappointed citizens that contributed to the election of Donald J. Trump as president.  

Bacevich sets up his argument about Trump’s improbable rise to power with impressionistic sketches of the successive cultural and economic paradigms that prevailed from the late 1940s until 2016.  Borrowing from the fictional setting of the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, Bacevich refers to the first framework as the Boone City consensus.  Bacevich paints a portrait that hews closely to the dominant popular understanding of the era, depicting it as a time of economic prosperity that was anchored socially by the traditional family structure. In his eyes, it was a period in which most Americans subscribed to a notion of freedom that the political theorist Isaiah Berlin called negative liberty.  Americans sought and were largely satisfied with freedom from economic want and freedom from Soviet domination. Widespread adherence to religious values provided an obstacle to licentious behavior and helped slow the spread of more expansive conceptions of freedom. Despite the durability of the Boone City consensus and its appeal to many Americans, Bacevich is not blind to its limitations and flaws. He is mindful that African Americans and women were not equal members in this society and that American foreign policy during the Cold War was motivated more by self-interest than altruistic concern for the aspirations of other nations around the world. 

The old Boone City consensus was superseded in the heady aftermath of the Cold War by a new organizing narrative that Bacevich calls the Emerald City consensus. This mostly bipartisan project had four chief attributes according to Bacevich.  First, U.S. policy makers became enthralled by neo-liberalism and promoted the view that globalization and the spread of unregulated market economies would lead to greater affluence both at home and around the world.  Second, the international trading system would need security and so America’s politicians and political pundits pressed for a post Cold War activist role for the U.S. military, in which it served as the “global hall monitor” of corporate capitalism.  A third element of the Emerald City consensus was the entrenchment of the imperial presidency. The ascendance of the executive branch was an outgrowth of the president’s unilateral control of the nation’s nuclear arsenal during World War II but Bacevich believes that the office took on a “demi-god” like air in the wake of the Cold War as it became common for Americans to refer to their president as “the leader of the free world.” The one feature of the new paradigm that was contested was the meaning of freedom.  Bacevich argues that while Conservatives clung to a narrow understanding of freedom that remained circumscribed by religious values, Liberals embraced a more capacious conception that celebrated unfettered personal autonomy and found its fullest expression in new social movements for gender, racial and sexual equality.  The splitting of freedom along partisan lines that Bacevich presents certainly has merit but it is far too simplistic. In his attempt to neatly explain the culture wars, he ignores that it is the American right which has advanced a radically expansive view of gun rights and which amid the ongoing Covid-19 crisis claims that one’s freedom to refuse to wear a mask trumps public health.  

Bacevich ascribes Trump’s victory in 2016 to the realization by large numbers of Americans that the promises of the Emerald City proselytizers were illusory. Every president from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama presided over an economic regime of rising inequality and a foreign policy of forever wars that drained the nation’s blood and coffers.  Hillary Clinton by dint of her marriage and her service as Obama’s Secretary of State was implicated by her association with the Emerald City consensus and thus Bacevich asserts that it was precisely Trump’s status as an outsider that propelled him to victory.  Interestingly, Bacevich traces the first cracks in the Emerald City consensus and thus the roots of Trumpism back to the presidential election of 1992.  In important respects, Pat Buchanan’s isolationist nationalism and Ross Perot’s economic populism were the scaffolding used by Trump to construct his own platform in 2016.  The election of 1992 was also marked by deep anxiety regarding changing gender roles in American culture that was exemplified by Hillary Clinton’s unabashed feminism and her prominent role in her husband’s campaign.  Trump’s misogyny throughout the 2016 campaign grew out of this earlier apprehension about Hillary Clinton and appealed to voters who supported the continuance of a traditional gender hierarchy.  

Despite the many virtues of this book, its account of the rise of Trumpism is insufficient and its assessment of its danger to our republic strikes me as naive and altogether too cheery.  The most surprising and disappointing aspect of Bacevich’s analysis is that he downplays the centrality of white identity politics and xenophobia to the 2016 campaign as well as the appeal of these features to many voters.  This mystifying misinterpretation goes a long way toward explaining why Bacevich does not share the same dire assessments of Trumpism that have been voiced by many other public intellectuals.  If Trump’s election is largely attributable to a rejection of military adventurism and economic grievances rather than racial animus then both his administration and the voters who continue to support him can be viewed in a less threatening and unattractive light. 

To be clear however, Bacevich is not an apologist for Trump.  He certainly believes that he is a selfish conman, referring to him as a “P.T. Barnum” like figure and “a mountebank of the very first order.”   The Emerald City consensus constitutes the first illusion referred to in the book’s title and the second is the life of Donald Trump and his sweeping promises of American restoration.  Sadly, after waking to the realities of the Emerald City consensus, Bacevich asserts that many Americans promptly fell for another swindle, one that promised a political system drained of corruption and a wall on the southern border funded by the Mexicans. But for all of Trump’s vulgarity and inanity, Bacevich argues that he played an indispensable role in exposing the fraudulence of the paradigm promoted by both parties over the last forty years.  Ironically, it took a master illusionist to reveal to his audience of fellow citizens that they were the victims of a long running deception.  Bacevich seems to delight in this irony but I leave it to readers whether they feel that the follies and cruelty of the Trump administration were too high a price to have paid for this realization. 

For such a recently published book, The Age of Illusions already feels dated and unequal to the analytical task of making sense of the tumultuous events of 2020.  Bacevich spills a great deal of ink throughout the second half of the book dismissing the chorus of journalists who have cast Trump as a white supremacist and an incipient fascist.  His inability to give more credence to these concerns is perplexing given the authoritarian disposition and racialized rhetoric that characterized Trump’s first years in office.  But in the face of the troubling events which have transpired since the book’s publication in January of 2020, it is Bacevich’s nonchalance that now seems delusional.  What other terms can be used to describe Trump’s brutal crackdown on peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters at Lafayette Square, his use of unidentified federal agents to snatch people off the streets of Portland, or his outrageous suggestion to postpone the presidential election other than white supremacy and fascism?  

While The Age of Illusions deserves high praise for its lucid analysis of the United States’ clumsy transition to a post Cold War world, readers looking to understand the emergence of Trumpism would do better to turn to John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience or Chris Hedges’ American Fascists.  Donald J. Trump may be an odd man but it is a mistake to see him as sui generis.  He is very much a creature of the modern Conservative movement and of a piece with the blowhards and charlatans who dominate right wing talk radio and Fox News.  His election owes more to the degradation of the Republican party than it does to the rejection of the Emerald City consensus. Trump seduced a Republican Party that had long flirted with authoritarianism and which embraced racism as an electoral strategy since the advent of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy. Only by acknowledging these unpleasant facts can we hope to rehabilitate the Republican Party and resume a more placid, serious and consensual style of politics. 

David M. Chamberlain

History Teacher

Burke Mountain Academy