A historian and longtime U.S. Army official traces the three-decade downward spiral of the United States from Cold War victor to land of gaping inequality, permanent war, moral confusion, an increasingly angry and alienated population—all lead by a historically unfit president.
The Age of Illusions is a wry and dark book aimed at dissecting decades-long trends and first principles rather than moment-to-moment crises. Bacevich is as merciless toward liberals who he says are guilty of 'self-righteously posturing against Trump' as toward the president himself ... one gets the sense that he would like The Age of Illusions to play a role similar to, say, Mills’s 1956 The Power Elite, even if, as he contends, the 'practical impact' of such ideas never seemed to amount to much ... Bacevich’s emphasis on the past 30 years as a period of consensus departs from an arguably more popular and widespread narrative, in which American politics during that time fell victim to polarization and hyper-partisanship, and to entrenched conflicts over race, culture and civil rights. The Age of Illusions does not devote much time to differences of opinion within the so-called elite, though Bacevich defines that category widely, including NPR listeners and Washington Post subscribers (that may be you, dear reader), along with 'Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the Israel lobby, the National Rifle Association, the national security apparatus, and megadonors like the Koch brothers.' He sees today’s more meaningful divide as one of class, with poor and working-class Americans fighting America’s wars as supposed volunteers, while the 'disturbingly inbred and self-perpetuating political elite' who sent them off to battle remains insulated from the consequences of its own decisions.
It’s a compelling narrative, and one congruent with the story of 'American carnage' that brought Donald Trump to the White House ... In the course of breezily narrating the deficiencies of the past four presidencies, he breaks periodically to remind the reader what an unedifying spectacle Trump was making of himself at each point in time, and how that spectacle exemplified something ugly about the America aborning ... Yet Bacevich’s narrative is also congruent with older critics of America’s way of life and its way in the world. Readers of Thorstein Veblen, William Appleman Williams or Christopher Lasch, of which Bacevich is one, would hardly be surprised by the choices America’s elites made after the Soviet Union collapsed ... Meanwhile, though Bacevich doubts whether America’s distinctive illusions actually won the Cold War, I wonder whether Mikhail Gorbachev would agree. Would he have been so willing to withdraw peacefully and see his own empire dismantled if he had not, to some degree, taken our professed beliefs at face value? If so, then our case is classically tragic. The very illusions that brought us victory are what powered our subsequent hubris, and nemesis rose from the inevitable disillusion of a world that trusted us in our folly.
Absolutely no one is spared in this powerful and highly readable indictment ... Major columnists of the New York Times are called out by name for their failure to understand what had produced Trump and for obsessing over his half-truths and lies. There are times, in fact, when it seems that Bacevich himself is guilty of the same Trumpsession. Unfortunately, this detracts from the grave tone of The Age of Illusions. Bacevich seems to think that Trump and Trumpism will be superseded by a more rational world. It is difficult to agree with this assessment after reading this lucid and very depressing assessment of the current state of what some Canadians term, the Excited States of America.