Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with the great honor today of speaking with our sometimes contributor Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute here in Washington, DC and also a Wall Street Journal columnist. I will also give him the title which he is free to reject, it being perhaps America’s foremost Christian realist, in that I think his writings often capture its spirit. His column of January 18 in The Wall Street Journal spoke of the year 2020 as showcasing America’s strengths, having survived social unrest, a pandemic, and then culminating with the events of January 6, the assault on the US Capitol. And yet, the republic still stands, as he wrote. So, Walter, thank you so much for joining this conversation.
Mead: Great to be here and even more great see you again.
Tooley: You have remained temperate and reasonable across the last four years, unlike so many others who have lurked off into the extreme fever swamps, whatever ideological extremes they enjoy. So, I appreciate your perspective and also your underlying hope, and perhaps even optimism, about the strength of American democracy.
Mead: Well, it was interesting to see 2020 as almost an ultimate stress test of American institutions and American democracy. I shouldn’t say ultimate because who knows what we’re going to see in 2021 or subsequently, but you had a pandemic, the greatest pandemic in 100 years, the greatest economic contraction in American history, the most polarizing president, I think it’s fair to say, that we’ve seen certainly in my lifetime, a summer of racial unrest and polarization and the sort of Black Lives Matter and the police violence and other issues, and then, a very, very close and very, very partisan and heavily contested election, followed by the first time that I can recall or have read about a president rejecting the legitimacy of the electoral process. It was extraordinary. And yet, through it all, nobody ever really thought that anything would happen other than that Joe Biden would be sworn in as president. There was never any sign the army, the navy, the marines, their loyalty to constitutional order was never in question. That Vice President Pence, when directly asked by President Trump to reject the Congressional count, you know, it’s just not the law, I can’t do it. The law prevailed, the institutions prevailed, the electoral college, which a lot of people spent a lot of the year dumping on, delivered a result. The electors elected, and there we have it. We’ve been reading about the coup in Myanmar this week. That’s what happens when there’s a coup. We did not in the United States have a coup, we had a mob, and we had a riot. That is a very, very different thing.
Tooley: The ideological extremes in today’s American politics, to me it feels very much like, or somewhat like, the 1930s. What do you think?
Mead: Well, I wasn’t around for the 1930s, unlike you, Mark.
Tooley: Friends of mine were.
Mead: I tend, my point of comparison tends to be the 1960s and 1970s, which I have at least some memory of. I think the ‘60s and ‘70s were actually more, there was more conflict and polarization in the United States than what we’re seeing now. We had the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the early stages of the modern feminist movement and of the gay rights movement. There was tremendous upheaval, there was far more violence in those days than we’ve seen recently. There was open talk of a new civil war, I think at a greater level than people hear now. I think what was missing was we didn’t have Twitter and we didn’t have Facebook, so that you could always turn it off. And you would watch all of the stuff on TV, or maybe you would go participate in a demonstration or something, but then it would turn off and you would go back to your daily life.
Tooley: The 1960s and early 1970s were more violent in that sense, but was there a larger stabilizing political center in both political parties during those years?
Mead: I think what we can say is that the center held better in the Democratic Party this year in 2020. Joe Biden, one may have all kinds of views of President Biden, but I think anyone would say of the major Democratic candidates in 2020, he would be the one most prominently identified as leading the centrist wing of the Democrats. Now, that center may have moved left from 1990, but, nevertheless, he was very much… the Elizabeth Warrens, the Bernie Sanders of the campaign, and Biden won. I think what is different in some ways is that the Republican Party establishment collapsed in 2016 and hasn’t really managed to reassert itself in the party. So, you look at the Republicans, and somebody pointed out that between like 1952 and 2008, you would find a Bush, a Dole, a Nixon on I think every ticket. And that continuity was broken in 2016. Except in 1964, I guess, you didn’t have any of those families on the ticket. The Republican Party actually was, of the two parties, probably the more, what do I say, not centrist so much as establishment. And that has gone. And whether the Republicans are able to kind of re-establish themselves or find a new center of gravity, whether we have a Trump party, whether the Trump wing breaks off from the establishment, I don’t know where it goes. But one of our two parties has changed.
Tooley: Is the nationalist perspective regarding America’s role in the world, the Jacksonian perspective as you put it, is it now weakened after this last administration, or will it surge back at some point?
Mead: Well, it’s certainly out of power. President Biden really ran as a kind of foreign policy restorationist, and he’s going to be pursuing, or trying to pursue, a multilateral international global foreign policy, I think with special focus on China and the challenges that it presents. But he certainly sees himself as trying to get back to what you would call the mainstream of post-World War II, post-Cold War American foreign policy, which is not something President Trump was interested in. What will happen in 2024, I cannot tell you, Mark. It’s clear that even with all of his, I think without COVID, it’s quite possible that President Trump would have been reelected without the pandemic. And also, it’s possible that someone else with Trump’s policy positions but without his some of his, what voters saw in 2020, his liabilities in terms of temperament or honesty or whatever else you might want to want to say, might have won. So, I would not say that at the level of public opinion this Jacksonian nationalism is dead. It’s very much around, and it’s not just an American phenomenon. And I saw a poll recently in France that Marine Le Pen is at 48% in the two-way race against Macron. We’ve never seen anything like that before in France. So, populism is around. There’s no doubt about it.
Tooley: Some are claiming that the events of January 6 have, if not permanently, certainly for a long time, damaged the United States’ reputation for political stability and as an advocate for international human rights. Those claims seem to me exaggerated, but what do you think?
Mead: Look, some of my earliest memories are of American decline. I remember as a kid they changed the way we all learned math in the 1950s, because the Russians had gotten the first space satellite, the Sputnik. And America was behind the Soviet Union in the space race, and we were all toast. So, I had to learn a lot of things like set theory and base 8 number systems and stuff. It’s done me a lot of good over the years. And then we had the terrible missile gap, we’d fallen behind the Soviet Union and they were eating our lunch. Then, the Civil Rights Movement and Selma, Alabama had destroyed America’s moral authority forever. Immediately afterwards, the Vietnam War destroyed American authority forever, wrecked our reputation, destroyed our national unity, turned us into a has-been power. Collapse of the Bretton Woods, Watergate, one disaster after another. The Soviet Union was winning the Cold War in the 1970s. Japan was the new superpower in the 1980s. It’s been decline, decline, decline, decline my whole life long and yet, after the international world of foreign policy chit chat has gone to these sorts of heights of American decline, and our epitaph has been read, and the service held, and the coffin ordered, and the grave drug, somehow, we end up not being in it yet. Maybe this is the time. Maybe January 6 was the one and is finally at long last the blow from which we won’t recover. But actually, I think we have a lot of studies of American decline, maybe not quite enough studies of American resilience.
Tooley: That needs to be your next book, perhaps.
Mead: American resilience. It takes me so long to write a book, I don’t know how many more I’ve got in me.
Tooley: Are you concerned about the prevalence of conspiracy theories in mainstream American political discourse right now? Maybe they’ve always been there or they’ve been there in the past and perhaps social media is just amplifying our awareness of them, but it seems like they’ve become far more mainstream than they would have been in your lifetime and mine.
Mead: Well, maybe that’s just what the conspiracy theorists want you to think. Look, I remember some years ago, I was on some kind of a radio show in a public radio station in Utah, and this was when Paul Volcker was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. And one of the callers called in and asked if I knew that Paul Volcker was a member of the American Communist Party. And I thought for a moment, “Well, I’ve actually met Mr. Volcker and he never struck me as a communist, but what do I know? But here’s one thing I would advise you, if you’re right, then I would say, join the Communist Party now while they’re still admitting new members. Because if the conspiracy is that good, it’s hopeless and it’s over.” And another friend of mine a few years ago was talking to somebody who was giving him something about a conspiracy theory. He was, again, speaking at a meeting and this guy was asking questions from the floor. My friend said, “Well, you know sir, I can’t prove to you that you’re wrong, because it’s almost impossible to prove a negative, but I can say this, if such a conspiracy really was happening, you would be the last person to know about it.” So, look, I think there have always been these conspiracy theories. Joe McCarthy, what was he doing? But not just on the right and on the left, conspiracy theories constantly, anti-vaxxing, that’s been around for a very long time. So, it’s human, and we’re free society. What I think was social media, so when we see these things more, I’m not sure that they’re out there more. You know, how many people were on that grassy knoll?
Tooley: The major threats to American democracy for the next generation, are they external or are they internal? Should we be focused primarily on China as the threat or on social unrest, and instability, and polarization within America?
Mead: I think we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. I think there are external threats and there are internal threats. And we need to think intelligently about both of them. Frankly, I think if we don’t resolve internal issues, we won’t be in a good position to deal with external ones. On the other hand, to some degree I think of Xi Jinping as the great unifier in that he has the ability to bring Americans together like no one I’ve ever seen. I know in the last couple of years I’ve talked to people like George Soros and asked him about Trump’s policy towards China, and George said, “Well, it’s not that bad.” So, if you had the ability to make George Soros say something nice about Donald Trump’s foreign policy, you are a statesman of unusual quality. Americans are a bit divided about what we should do, how do you craft a strategy on China? But I actually think there’s a surprising degree of unity that what we have been doing isn’t working. And it’s a real issue problem and something that we can’t ignore. That is a long way toward a new foreign policy consensus.
Tooley: Walter if you don’t mind my getting personal with you, who have been your, brace yourself, who have been your primary philosophical influences over the course of your life? Authors, thinkers, politically, spiritually and otherwise.
Mead: Well, there’s no getting away from C.S. Lewis, who I first began to read as a kid. And both the quality of his thinking and the quality of his prose have been in the vividness of his imagination and the depth of his Christian culture. All of those things have been lighthouses to which I’ve returned over and over again through my life. I was a very weird kid, I suppose, and sometime pretty early in life, I remember deciding I needed to start reading big books. So, I read two books that summer. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer and the Bible, cover to cover. And trying to figure out how both those books could fit together, be part of the same world, in some ways, that’s something I’ve been wrestling with ever since then. Reading those things both made such an impression on me. And as I look back at this point over the six decades almost that have passed since then, I have to say that the question of evil in human history and the question of divine revelation and providence, trying to understand those things, not to mention where do I stand personally in all of that those, are just things that I keep coming back to.
Tooley: Of course, like C.S. Lewis, you are an Anglican and your late revered father was a priest in the Episcopal Church.
Mead: Correct. And one of his seminary classmates was Walter Hooper, who was C.S. Lewis’s sort of executor/heir. So, real connections there.
Tooley: What are you reading right now?
Mead: A lot of things. I have a book group here in Washington and we are reading All the King’s Men in that. I’m reading Brendan Simm’s Hitler, see I’m still in the Third Reich, which is actually a fantastic book. I am reading a history of the Holy Roman Empire. Just in a book group I just did, we just did this book Say Nothing, which is about the Northern Ireland troubles and won the Arthur Ross Book Award at Foreign Affairs this year. So, I’m reading a lot.
Tooley: And your next book, you finished writing it, I assume?
Mead: No, I’m still thrashing it out, but it’s supposed to come out in January of 2022. The Arc of a Covenant, which would be about Israel and the United States. I write at one point in there that Israel occupies a speck on the map of the world, but fills a continent in the American mind. Trying to understand America’s foreign policy toward Israel, you have to understand both the geopolitics around that speck on the actual map of the actual world, and then the continent in the American mind that Israel and all the associations of Israel occupy. At one point I was thinking the subtitle of this book would be “Don’t blame Israel on the Jews.” That the answer, if you want to understand American foreign policy about Israel, you need to spend a lot less time thinking about how American Jews think about Israel or lobby or vote about Israel, and spend a lot more time thinking about how American Christians think or don’t think about Israel.
Tooley: Do you think there’s a threat of resurgence of anti-Semitism in America or does that go so against the grain of who America is that it’s not very likely?
Mead: I would say that as we’ve seen a little bit more polarization and you see people on both the left and the right coming to doubt their faith in America, you do see anti-Semitism coming back pretty much in those circles. So, anti-Americans on the left are people who think that America has been utterly lost. On the right, if you want to hunt for anti-Semitism, you’ll find it there. But among people who sort of remain committed to American ideas, I think anti-Semitism is always going to be marginalized there.
Tooley: Walter Russell Mead, thank you for, as always, a fascinating conversation.
Mead: Thank you, Mark.