The Western world is inexplicably enduring a prolonged crisis of mediocre leadership, which descended on it like a pulmonary illness shortly after the end of the Cold War: the greatest and least violent strategic victory in the history of the nation-state. Francis Fukuyama famously suggested that there was no higher form of historical development than the Western social democratic state. China, though undemocratic, was less oppressive than in the time of Mao, or even the Tiananmen Square suppression of 1989, and was steadily yielding to the appeal of capitalism. Japan was flourishing so spectacularly that it was widely thought (including by itself) to be on the verge of challenging the United States as the world’s greatest economic power. The Soviet Union had disintegrated, but there was much hope for the full assumption of the status of a democratic country by Russia, as well as by many of its former republics. Mikhail Gorbachev, though without a jurisdiction, and his successor, the first president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, were democrats; in the Kremlin and in the former palaces of the Romanovs, only despotism (or totalitarianism) had ruled before.

Germany, reunited at last under a secure democratic political system, an honored associate in a cocoon of friendly economic and alliance affiliates, had been fulfilling the former (1982–1998) federal chancellor Helmut Kohl’s call for “a European Germany and not a German Europe.” Germany had never before been governed democratically while unoccupied and unfettered by war-guilt. From the founding of the German Empire by Bismarck in 1871, Germany was the strongest power in Europe. Prior to that, as nation-states arose from the Middle Ages, the Holy Roman emperors in Vienna and the leaders of France, most conspicuously Cardinal Richelieu (prime minister 1624–1642) and Napoleon, and the Austrian chancellor in the first half of the nineteenth-century, Klemens von Metternich, the “coachman of Europe,” did the necessary to assure that the German states were not united.

Germany had become, at last, the greatest power in Europe.

Bismarck, like Richelieu, had the insight to know how far he could extend the borders and influence of his country without uniting all of Europe against him, as Napoleon eventually did. Then the Leader of the Opposition, Benjamin Disraeli told the British Parliament on February 2, 1871, as the Prussian victory over France in the Franco–Prussian War was confirmed, that “There is not a diplomatic solution that has not been swept away. You have a new world, new influences at work, new and unknown dangers and objects with which to cope . . . the balance of power has been utterly destroyed.” So it had; Germany had become, at last, the greatest power in Europe.

With the cavalier dismissal of Bismarck in 1890, after twenty-eight years as head of the government in Berlin (first of Prussia and then of all Germany), by the thirty-one-year-old German Emperor Wilhelm II, the formation of German policy passed from capable to dangerously incapable hands. The hecatomb of World War I ensued, from which Germany emerged minus Alsace, Lorraine, the Polish provinces, and its overseas empire: a faltering republic that, without having the time to restore its standing in Europe, eventually floundered into the arms of Hitler. The consequences are too infamous to require retelling. But it was because of the United States, the only one of the post–World War II Big Four that was not afraid of a united Germany, that Germany was resurrected.

When France tried to veto German entry into nato because the United States refused to use nuclear weapons against the North Vietnamese (though President Eisenhower did give the French a good deal of sound advice, including not to be trapped in Dien Bien Phu), Eisenhower forced West Germany’s application through and agreed on arrangements with the distinguished German federal chancellor Konrad Adenauer. (Adenauer consented to limiting the West German army to no more than twelve divisions.)

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the overthrow of the satellite regimes in Eastern Europe, which were all set up and maintained in contravention of Stalin’s undertakings at the Tehran (1943) and Yalta (1945) Conferences, and the implosion of the Soviet Union and reversion of Russia’s European borders to the extent of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy in the seventeenth century, Germany emerged again as the greatest power in Europe. It did so without having achieved that role, as Bismarck had done, by, in his own words, “blood and iron,” much less as Hitler had done, by aggressive war, barbarous occupation, and terror.

All was in readiness for Germany to play the role Bismarck created for it, but it has been hobbled by the fractious divisions of its politics and by the continuing ambivalence of German ambitions. It was a truism before World War II that Germany did not know if it was an Eastern or Western European people, and that it was too late unified and could not assure its own security without destabilizing the security of other countries. Approximately ten million ethnic Germans fled westward ahead of the Red Army in 1944 and 1945, and over 80 percent of Germans were gathered together in the Western-occupied zones, thus establishing that Germany was a Western country. The Western zones were relaunched as the Federal Republic, which has behaved with exemplary responsibility for two-thirds of a century.

Probably the greatest act of statesmanship in the post-war era was Adenauer’s rejection of Stalin’s offer of reunification in exchange for neutrality. Adenauer carried German opinion in saying that Germany had always sought allies and was now allied with the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, and would remain and be reunified with its allies. Of course this occurred. Germany is now of the West, but it has not entirely surmounted the moral crisis provoked by the hideous enormities of the Third Reich. More than two whole generations have gone by since that time, immense reparations have been paid, and the current chancellor, Angela Merkel, influenced still by that legacy, has weakened her position by rather indiscriminately admitting over a million refugees from the Middle East into Germany. The moral condition of inferiority still afflicts Germany.

The Social Democrats were always divided between neutralists and pro-western factions, initially led by Kurt Schumacher and Ernst Reuter, then by Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, and now the divisions are sharper than ever. Because the reliably conservative Free Democrats, the party of Walter Scheel, Otto Lambsdorff, and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, have fallen below the 5 percent threshold necessary to elect members to the Bundestag, Merkel’s (and Adenauer’s and Kohl’s) Christian Democrats have had to form a grand coalition with the divided and almost dysfunctional Social Democrats. Their leader, Frank-Walter Steinmeyer, though sensibly pro-West in his views, is so stretched by factionalism that he recently accused nato of provoking Russia by holding routine military exercises, as alliances do. The other opposition parties in the Bundestag, the Greens and the Linke (Left), and, outside the Bundestag, the Pirates, are, respectively, militant ecologists, unreconstructed Communists, and cyber-crazed anarchists. The latest polls show the Free Democrats and the German Alternative Party (which resembles nothing so much as the U.K. Independence Party), as well as the Pirates, all clearing the threshold of 5 percent to enter the Bundestag, which, if it occurred, would necessitate a three-party coalition to govern. It is a precarious situation when only one political party in a great nation like Germany is fit to govern, and must co-exist and to some extent receive support from such a tempestuous group of largely unfeasible legislative blocs. The German political condition has become unstable.

The moral condition of inferiority still afflicts Germany.

In the circumstances, Merkel, who has been a deft and purposeful leader for much of her eleven-year time as chancellor (a term exceeded only by Kohl and Adenauer among chancellors of the Federal Republic), and who specializes in doing the unexpected, will probably return if she can last to the elections next year, though at present she enjoys the support of only about a third of the voters and is under threat from her Bavarian party affiliates. But if she can hold the Bavarians, she would need the Free Democrats and the Alternative Party or, once more, the wobbly Social Democrats in order to govern. In these conditions, not even Bismarck, Adenauer, or Kohl would be strong leaders, and it is not easy seeing German leadership firming up any time soon. Merkel has been weak on Ukraine and inconstant toward Russia, has joined in Obama’s sell-out to a nuclear Iran, and has reserved her strength to squander it in admission of the seething mass of not easily assimilable migrants. She has taken an incomprehensibly long time to realize the danger of this issue.

It is nearly thirty years since the former chancellor Helmut Schmidt said that Germany’s conduct of foreign relations can no longer be influenced by the evils wrought under the Third Reich. Yet it is likely going to require another change in government and the accession of a leader from a generation later than Merkel (born in 1954) to ease Germany into her rightful place and to fill the vacuum left open by the implosion of the Russian presence and corresponding withdrawal of the American influence in Europe. Several of Merkel’s colleagues, such as the defense minister Ursula von der Leyen, could probably complete the task of interring far-off German war guilt.

France is in a more parlous condition. Charles de Gaulle, having predicted the complete failure of the Fourth Republic, waited with mounting impatience for it to flounder to an end, as it did in 1958, and then resolved the 170-year schism of French political life between the monarchists and republicans, by founding a monarchy, though an elected one, and calling it a republic. (The division between the two factions was such that a monarchy was only avoided after the Franco–Prussian War and the bloody Paris Commune of 1871, when the Bourbon claimant to the throne refused the proposed compromise of having the monarchist fleur-de-lys on one side of the French flag and the blue-white-red bars of the republicans on the other.) The descent of the Fifth Republic presidency from de Gaulle to Georges Pompidou, to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, to François Mitterand, Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, and, for the last four years, to François Hollande, has been a fairly steady decline of the credibility of the occupant of the Élysée Palace. De Gaulle’s seven-year renewable term has been cut to five years, and Hollande is the first of this sequence of leaders who never had a serious job before becoming chief of state and head of government.

The French are legendarily intelligent and cultured but perversely impractical.

Hollande had been a long-serving officer of his Socialist Party—apart from the Gaullists or quasi-Gaullists, the only party that has elected a president in the Fifth Republic (just three of ten elections)—and was expected to be nominated as the Socialist candidate in 2007. But he was side-swiped by his glamorous companion and mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal, who won a respectable number of gallant votes, but went down in defeat at the hands of Nicolas Sarkozy, who started out as more effective than Jacques Chirac, his predecessor, but became known as the “water-bug” because of his frenetic involvement in almost everything that came within sight. He fumbled so badly that Hollande defeated him on a far-left platform that has generated outright economic decline in France, and has almost buried the Socialist Party in France. (Though separated, Mlle Royal is now in her children’s father’s government. Her successor as First Companion abruptly decamped when it came to light that Hollande’s official driver was regularly conducting his excellency on a motor scooter to the home of his new paramour. The president kept his trysts quiet for a while by wearing a visored motorcycle helmet.) Hollande is now running even, at about 13 percent, with the perennial centrist candidate François Bayrou, a French Cincinnatus who leaves his farm in the foothills of the Pyrenees every election year to seek the presidency, and the Communist-anarchist faddist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The leading former candidates are Marine Le Pen, of the conservative and isolationist National Front, at 29 percent and Sarkozy at 23 percent. The alternate Gaullists and former premiers Alain Juppé and François Fillon run well ahead of Sarkozy, and all three Gaullists run ahead of Le Pen in the second ballot run-off. (De Gaulle was the only president to be elected with an absolute majority on the first ballot.)

Hollande has acted decisively and with the instinct of a leader of a great power to quell civil wars provoked by Islamist extremists in the Ivory Coast and Mali, and was distinguished, eloquent, and universally admired in his responses to terrorist outrages in France last year. The French are legendarily intelligent and cultured but perversely impractical. They periodically become bored with their extremely rich and comfortable country, a land of gourmets and connoisseurs, and rise up on spurious pretexts and hurl paving stones at the police. And though the French are as avaricious as any people on earth, they veer into deeply redistributive socialism, though they are underachievers at actually paying assessed tax. To stir the French out of their cynicism, it is usually necessary to frighten them with the specter of civil disorder that might actually cost them something, or inspire them with a national goal of imaginative grandeur.

De Gaulle took over a France mired in the endless war in Algeria that was also suffering from revolving-door governments and a very soft currency. He gave them a strong government, a new currency, and nuclear weapons; cut loose Algeria; and, with the United States mired in Indochina and the balance of power apparently narrowly calibrated between the ussr and the United States, he made France the third or fourth (depending on current conditions in China) most politically influential country in the world. It has gradually slipped since then, but it remains an admired and naturally important European country. There is room for hope that public opinion will firm up around a serious candidate for the presidency next year. A feline people, elegant, intelligent, cynical, and self-absorbed, the French, in de Gaulle’s phrase, “vacillate constantly between greatness and decline, but are revived, century after century, by the genius of renewal.” But now la Belle France is saddled with as improbable a leader as she has had since Charles the Bald, Charles the Fat, and Charles the Simple.

It will be no small task selling the French an incentive-based economic system, which will have to peel away, as the Germans did under the Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder fifteen years ago, some of the Danegeld post-war Europe has paid, for notorious historical reasons, to organized labor and small farmers. Germany has never failed to act on the horror of inflation incurred in the early Twenties under the Weimar Republic. France has never taken appeals to the national interest seriously, unless they were convinced that the enjoyment of their country was both endangered, as it was in the events of World War I (and as they convinced themselves it was not in 1940), and was salvageable by a policy “of unity, energy, and sacrifice,” as de Gaulle enunciated after the fact.

There is a rather paralyzing ennui about European politics now.

That spirit got the country heroically through the First World War but was scattered and corroded in the Second World War. (Napoleon was outraged that the French would not resort to guerrilla war, as the Spanish and Russians had against him.) The French are disturbed at their fraught economic state and the flight of many billions of Euros, but an eminently electable leader has not emerged: Hollande is a “fonctionnaire,” one guilty, perhaps, of participating in what Julien Benda called “the treason of the clerisy” (meaning rather perversity and mediocrity than dishonor). Marine Le Pen, though now more palatable because she expelled her eighty-seven-year-old father as a Holocaust-denier from the party he founded, is essentially an angry and somewhat xenophobic petite bourgeoise, a middle-class, female Donald Trump. The far left are diverting but absurd; Sarkozy is unserious. It is like the Third and Fourth Republics, where apart from a couple of exceptional people, it was all a cavalcade of personifications of narrow echelons of the populace, and no one spoke for France. As de Gaulle wrote of Albert Le-brun, last president of the Third Republic, who did nothing but follow the quavering advice of the senescent eighty-four-year-old Marshal Pétain and the greasy fascist quisling who governed in his name, Pierre Laval: “As chief of state two things were lacking; he was not a chief and there was no state . . . . By the light of the thunderbolt, the regime was revealed in its ghastly infirmity as having no relation and no proportion to the defense, honor, and independence of France.” Of course, neither France nor Europe have even begun a descent to such horrifying depths, but there is a rather paralyzing ennui about European politics now.

France is not under great threat, and has a government whose levers are connected to relevant points of authority, but it has not yet developed the talent of most other advanced countries of electing and supporting a capable reform government when the country is not under dire threat. There does seem to be stirring a desire for a competent, moderate government, which will attract investment and proceed with the most humane possible form of accelerated integration of the nearly 10 percent of the French population who are Muslims. The only leader they have had in the Fifth Republic who was actually popular, apart from de Gaulle (who also served in the Third Republic and closed out the Fourth), was François Mitterand, the shady but cultured socialist, who was a good Western ally as president but who spent the war in occupied France, engaged simultaneously in collaboration and resistance, and who attempted to generate greater popularity in the Sixties by staging a fake assassination attempt on himself. He also regarded the establishment of Free France by de Gaulle as a publicity stunt and political trick (though a clever one), and ran for president twice with full communist support. Cultured cynicism goes a long way in France.

An attack on basic economic and sociological problems that is presented soberly and pursued efficiently might be possible, and the country might be ready for it. Fillon, the Anglophile former premier and minister of education, and a less tired candidate than Juppé (who is tainted with the mediocrity of the Chirac regime), could be a strong president. Where Germany has done little to fill the vacuum its diffidence in world affairs has created since its unification twenty-five years ago, France is almost always attempting to assert an influence at least as great as it objectively possesses. And while it still has the instincts of a great power (in responding to terrorist outrages, for example), its weakened economy and the fact that its leader is only endorsed by 13 percent of his countrymen are aberrant conditions likely to be substantially addressed next year.

The United Kingdom has not really had a strong and distinguished leader since Margaret Thatcher was pushed out by her own party in 1990, and the country has been particularly divided over the issue of participation in Europe. When Thatcher entered office in 1979, the country was on daily audit from the imf, there were strict currency controls, the top personal income tax rate was 98 percent, and the corporate rate was 70 percent for most businesses. Industrial relations were a chaos of capricious work stoppages by union foremen and the country was a shambles of money-losing, publicly owned industries: coal, steel, airlines, etc. After eleven years, almost all the publicly owned businesses and other assets, including government-owned housing, had been privatized and tax rates had been lowered to a maximum personal rate of 40 percent; there had been sharp economic growth, and British stature in the world had risen to its highest point since the Churchillian glories. Mrs. Thatcher threw the Argentinian junta out of the Falklands (and restored democracy to Argentina), and was instrumental, with Ronald Reagan, in bringing the Cold War to a victorious conclusion (as defined by President Reagan’s criterion when asked his preferred outcome: “We win and they lose”). This being the case, it was the most natural development for Margaret Thatcher to be sent packing, as Churchill had been in 1945, Lloyd George in 1922, and Disraeli in 1880. The price of victory in Britain is short-term rejection, especially for Conservatives.

The succession to Thatcher has almost been like the desultory decline in leadership in France after de Gaulle. John Major straddled all issues between Thatcherite Euroscepticism and Euro-integrationism, and between the Thatcherite emphasis on lower taxes and privatization and the countervailing pressure for increased public-sector investment in social and public services. The desire for change elected Labour in 1997 for the first of three terms for Tony Blair. The previous Labour leaders, Neil Kinnock and John Smith, had removed the tether of Labour from the central labor union confederation (tuc), and Blair avoided raising personal and corporate income taxes, although he steadily increased all other forms of taxation and threw money at the teachers’ and nurses’ unions, while going cock-a-hoop for the most overwrought versions of impending global warming. He also professed entire enthusiasm for Euro-integration, but recognized the absence of a public consensus to enter the Euro-zone (changing the pound for the euro). Blair’s was a faddish and extravagant, but not ideologically strident, government. And it was a monument to what Thatcher had achieved as well as to Blair’s moderation compared to previous Labour prime ministers (Ramsay MacDonald, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, and James Callaghan) that it took three full terms before almost everything Thatcher and Major had built and retained in terms of labor peace, economic growth, and fiscal stability was squandered. (No previous Labour Party leader had won two consecutive full-term election victories.)

Blair’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, finished the stub of Blair’s last term, (Thatcher and Blair were the only leaders to win three straight full terms since before the First Reform Act that broadened the electorate in 1832). David Cameron, the fourth Conservative leader since Major, won more MPs than his opponents, the Labour and Liberal Democratic Parties, in 2010, but all three party leaders lost. It was Cameron’s election to win, but he was unconvincing, and the relic of the Liberal Party elected enough MPs to join the first British peace-time coalition government since the 1930s. Cameron governed competently, though he had a tendency to go overboard at every stage, making even the most banal utterance sound like the defining moment of his life. He and his chancellor, George Osborne, brought Britain back from the brink of the economic debacle where thirteen years of Blair and Brown had left it. In order to get the Euro-leopard off his back and put it at a distance, Cameron promised, early on, a referendum in 2016 about whether to stay in or leave the European Union. It was considered, until very late, unlikely the country would take such a gigantic step as departure. In the meantime, in last year’s general election, the Scottish Nationalists, who had received 45 percent of the vote in Scotland to secede from the United Kingdom the year before, cut Labour off at the ankles in Scotland and cost them fifty MPs, in a Parliament of 630. The U.K. Independence Party (ukip), ably led by the rabble-rousing raf veteran and Member of the European Parliament Nigel Farage, took more from Labour than from the Conservatives; the Liberal Democratic coalition partners were eviscerated as neither fish nor fowl, and Cameron’s Conservatives gained a little, but the distribution of changes across the electoral map gave him a majority and destroyed as a serious alternative the Labour Party, which was pitch-forked into the hands of the eccentric Marxist, Jeremy Corbyn, who makes Bernie Sanders sound like Grover Cleveland.

All seemed safe for Cameron, but it wasn’t. In one of the catastrophic career blunders of British political history, Cameron, with his usual hyperbole, promised “full-on treaty change” with Europe, and came back from Brussels with only Europe’s promise to “consider” British applications for varied levels of benefit for migrants. Assuming a British vote to quit Europe altogether to be out of the question, he called the vote. He lost. Cameron and Osborne responded manfully to their defeat and retired at once. The government was suddenly in a difficult position, as the majority of Conservative MPs, and of the House of Commons as a whole, wished to remain in Europe, but a majority of the country—both Conservatives and not—wished to depart the European Union or, at the very least, wind down political integration. In Britain, an incumbent party changing leaders always elevates the foreign secretary, home secretary, or chancellor. Since the chancellor left with the prime minister, and the foreign secretary was new and relatively unknown, Cameron organized the succession for the long-serving home secretary, Theresa May, who was a Remainer but didn’t really campaign and was a comparatively conciliatory figure.

Brussels is undemocratic and will have to be overhauled to avoid the implosion of the Soviet Union.

The co-leader of the successful Leave campaign, the former London mayor Boris Johnson, saw what had been sewn up in Ms. May’s favor, and withdrew, and, after a week of obloquy, was rewarded with the Foreign Office. The new prime minister claims to be negotiating Britain’s departure, “Brexit,” but the European treaty allows two years of negotiation. Brussels is undemocratic—the European administration doesn’t answer to constituent governments or the European Parliament—and will have to be overhauled to avoid the fate of implosion of the Soviet Union. Despite its purposeful statements now, it would be surprising if Brussels didn’t make some serious concessions to Britain, as there will be a queue of countries behind Britain also seeking renegotiation or outright departure. Europeans favor a common market and a high level of cooperation and never a return to the internecine European hostility of many centuries. They do not want a government by unanswerable and compulsively meddlesome martinets from little countries playing the British, French, Germans, and Italians off against each other. If Theresa May has the skills of a juggler, she could maintain her office for a long time, and Britain’s capacity for moral leadership in Europe will be enhanced, not reduced, by the Brexit vote. Where Cameron talked a blue streak of determination, he was constantly changing lanes and correcting course. May is no Thatcher, but she could have many of Margaret Thatcher’s strengths, without the inflexibility that was long one of Thatcher’s great assets, but became the cause for her unseemly departure. As the British say, it is all to play for.

This brings a review of Western leadership round to the United States. The Trump phenomenon, so unsuspected, disparaged, underestimated, and now a subject of almost hysterical abuse or denial, is illustrative of the chronic misgovernment that inexplicably has afflicted the United States for about twenty years. In that time, the federal government enacted the housing debt bubble with the issuance of trillions of dollars of worthless debt, in pursuit of the political free lunch of expanded family home ownership. It dealt with the resulting economic crisis, the worst since the Great Depression, by doubling the accumulated debt of 233 years of American independence, in nine years, to buy an economic recovery that in the latest figures is 1 percent economic growth annually. In foreign affairs, the United States has virtually mothballed the Western Alliance and for a decade stranded almost all of the country’s ground forces’ conventional military capability in Middle East wars that have vastly extended the influence of Iran, have created an immense humanitarian disaster, and have given the Tehran theocracy a green light for nuclear arms in ten years (if it chooses to wait that long). There have been other terrible fiascoes, such as the evaporating Red Line in Syria, and making Iran and Russia allies with the West against isis in the remnants of Iraq while opponents in the shambles of Syria, where they are propping up Assad. President Obama and Mrs. Clinton avoid the phrase “Islamist terror.” Obama told the Joint Chiefs that climate change was the greatest threat to the country, and he described the San Bernardino massacre to the nation as “workplace violence.” Secretary Clinton slept while her ambassador in Benghazi was murdered, apologized to the Muslims of the world, lied repeatedly over the issues created by her improper use of emails, and has not begun to explain the pecuniary relationship between her State Department and the Clinton Foundation.

The United States has virtually mothballed the Western Alliance.

These have been twenty very unsatisfactory years and the country is angry. It is astounding that Donald Trump came from no political background, never even an appointed public office, like Taft or Hoover, and has taken over one of the major parties—running between five points ahead and ten behind Clinton on a campaign that consists of pure moderation, leavened only by warm polemics about illegal immigration and trade deals that can be represented, whether fairly or not, as importing unemployment, as well as by self-inflicted blunderbuss wounds. In largely self-financing such a campaign, Donald Trump has taken over the Republicans with a wave of anger that is directed at both parties.

One member or other of the Bush and Clinton families held one of the three highest offices in the American government for eight straight terms: 1981–2013. And both families put up candidates for their parties’ presidential nomination this year. There has never in the United States been anything remotely like this sustained two-family incumbency. All of the traditional Republicans—Mitt Romney, John McCain, the Bushes, everyone except Robert Dole, of their living former presidential candidates—was absent from the Republican convention and was not mentioned. The Democrats, by contrast, produced a series of speakers (Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, Mr. and Mrs. Obama, and Joe Biden) who have occupied the official residences of the president and vice president for a total of forty person-years. It was the upheaval of change against a self-praising continuity. Neither candidate has high approval ratings, and it often seems that each is only considered electable after contemplating the identity of the opponent.

Coincidentally, there has never in American history been such an interregnum of inept leadership. The three Republican presidents between Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt (Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover) served in times of Prohibition, isolationism, the closing of immigration from Europe, the stock market bubble, and the Great Depression. The twelve years of Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan gave America Dred Scott, Squatters’ Sovereignty (meaning a civil war in each territory before it was admitted to the Union to determine whether it would be a slave or a free state), and, ultimately, the Civil War itself, producing 750,000 dead. But that war was a long time coming and can’t be laid entirely on the four presidents who preceded Lincoln, and none of them, nor the presidents elected in the 1920s, were reelected. The United States, for the first time since Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, has had three consecutive two-term presidents, but the first group were, on balance, successful presidents, and George W. Bush and Barack Obama have not been.

There has never in American history been such an interregnum of inept leadership.

The United States took a good time to have a leadership gap, after the Cold War and with no serious rivals, but the work force is shrinking, terrorism is spreading, automation is generating wealth reduction as well as productivity increases, alliances are fraying, and historians of the future will wonder what America’s leadership groups thought they were doing passively admitting twelve million unskilled peasants into the country illegally. The public education system is defective, the health care system is very uneven, and the justice system is just the imprisonment of anyone a prosecutor takes against, with guilt or innocence being effectively beside the point (99.5 percent conviction rate, 97 percent of those without trial, such is the perversion of the plea bargain).

Donald Trump’s acceptance speech highlighted increasing rates of violent crime and insecurity in the world, and mercifully spared listeners the customary vexatious invocations of God, American exceptionalism, the shining beacons, and the overheated bunk about climate change. But it was an angry statement of national resentment at misgovernment by both parties in all branches for many years. And it dwelt with regrettable predictability on reactionary variations of law and order, with little expressed concern for the rights of suspects or the negative aspects of having flooded the country with firearms.

The citizens’ anger is justified, however, and while Trump’s police-fetishism and protectionism have worrisome aspects and are at best unsubtle, the volcanic eruption of this rebellion that is moderate in policy terms except for responses to illegal immigration and some aspects of trade is a positive statement that democracy lives and flourishes. Trump raised the Republican primary turnout by 60 percent compared with that of four years ago, and ran up stunning primary vote totals (taking almost as many votes as Clinton and Sanders together in Indiana, and bringing the Republicans up almost to the same totals as Democrats in Pennsylvania). The achievement of the Trump phenomenon has only slightly been approached by outsiders winning nominations when opposed by party elders: by Horace Greeley for the Democrats in 1872 and Wendell Willkie for the Republicans in 1940. On balance, it is a healthy phenomenon, and even if Mrs. Clinton wins, the Democrats have to know that the same old cynical roll of the pork barrel won’t work anymore. She had as tortuous a time keeping the nomination from a completely unfeasible self-styled socialist (Sanders) as she did avoiding indictment for her misuse of official emails and untruthfulness about it.

It is the great political irony of current times that the United States is the chief author and engine of the triumph of modern democracy and of the free-market economy in much of the world, but that it is not now one of the world’s better functioning democracies. I believe that this is chiefly due to the Watergate debacle, in which an outstanding but neurotic president was destroyed by his opponents with the almost unanimous complicity of the media, for no good reason. The quality of national candidates has declined since then, as the media have never ceased to congratulate themselves on the service they performed, including in jettisoning Indochina into the lap of the North Vietnamese and Pol Pot.

Though not many formulate it in this way, the rise of Trump and the Sanders challenge show that the heavy failings of the Bush–Clinton–Obama joint regency will not be accepted. America, one way or another, but through the ineluctable operation of its unregenerate, patronage-lubricated system, will ultimately reflect and legitimize the public’s opinion, no matter how saturated the country is with the misinformation and clangorous superficialities of 95 percent of the media.

We have, in leadership terms, and to quote de Gaulle one last time, been “crossing the desert.” (He was, after all, the West’s greatest, and most aphoristically talented, political leader since Roosevelt and Churchill.) Perhaps it was inevitable that there would be a let-down after the satisfactory end of the Cold War, with all its tensions, compounded by the strains of reunification in Germany and the consequences of the Watergate upheaval in the United States. The German confidence vacuum will probably start to be filled and the more responsible of the Federal Republic’s third parties, the Free Democrats and Alternatives, seem likely to prosper. In France, which never lacks self-confidence but has followed the descending mode of its leadership cycle for nearly fifty years, there are reasonable prospects of a positive turn. The British always muddle through, and the new leader is an unknown quantity and may be capable of much more.

The heavy failings of the Bush–Clinton–Obama joint regency will not be accepted.

The great American people are the most productive and indefatigably positive nation in history. They have made it clear that they will not stand for declinism, charlatanism, and the humbug in Washington that has so disserved the country these twenty years. When individuals are plunging into public life to make things better, and not just because they decided in elementary school that it would be nice to be president, a renascence will begin; if not this year, soon.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 1, on page 36
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