Sometimes a prophet can be right about what will come, yet torn about whether it should.
President Trump’s recent speech in Warsaw, in which he urged Europeans and Americans to defend Western civilization against violent extremists and barbarian hordes, inevitably evoked Samuel P. Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” — the notion that superpower rivalry would give way to battles among Western universalism, Islamic militance and Chinese assertiveness. In a book expanded from his famous 1993 essay, Huntington described civilizations as the broadest and most crucial level of identity, encompassing religion, values, culture and history. Rather than “which side are you on?” he wrote, the overriding question in the post-Cold War world would be “who are you?”
So when the president calls on the nations of the West to “summon the courage and the will to defend our civilization,” when he insists that we accept only migrants who “share our values and love our people,” and when he urges the transatlantic alliance to “never forget who we are” and cling to the “bonds of history, culture and memory,” I imagine Huntington, who passed away in late 2008 after a long career teaching at Harvard University, nodding from beyond.
It would be a nod of vindication, perhaps, but mainly one of grim recognition. Trump’s civilizational rhetoric is just one reason Huntington resonates today, and it’s not even the most interesting one. Huntington’s work, spanning the mid-20th century through the early 21st, reads as a long argument over America’s meaning and purpose, one that explains the tensions of the Trump era as well as anything can. Huntington both chronicles and anticipates America’s fights over its founding premises, fights that Trump’s ascent has aggravated. Huntington foresees — and, frankly, stokes — the rise of white nativism in response to Hispanic immigration. He captures the dissonance between working classes and elites, between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, that played out in the 2016 campaign. And he warns how populist demagogues appeal to alienated masses and then break faith with them.
This is Trump’s presidency, but even more so, it is Huntington’s America. Trump may believe himself a practical man, exempt from any intellectual influence, but he is the slave of a defunct political scientist.
Huntington’s books speak to one another across the decades; you find the origins of one in the unanswered questions of another. But they also reveal deep contradictions. More than a clash of civilizations, a clash of Huntingtons is evident. One Huntington regards Americans as an exceptional people united not by blood but by creed. Another disowns that idea in favor of an America that finds its essence in faith, language, culture and borders. One Huntington views new groups and identities entering the political arena as a revitalization of American democracy. Another considers such identities pernicious, anti-American.
These works embody the intellectual and political challenges for the United States in, and beyond, the Trump years. In Huntington’s writings, idealistic visions of America mingle with its basest impulses, and eloquent defenses of U.S. values betray a fear of the pluralism at the nation’s core. Which vision wins out will determine what country we become.
To understand our current turmoil, the most relevant of Huntington’s books is not “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” (1996) or even “Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity” (2004), whose fans reportedly include self-proclaimed white nationalist Richard Spencer. It is the lesser-known and remarkably prescient “American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony,” published 36 years ago.
In that work, Huntington points to the gap between the values of the American creed — liberty, equality, individualism, democracy, constitutionalism — and the government’s efforts to live up to those values as the central tension of American life. “At times, this dissonance is latent; at other times, when creedal passion runs high, it is brutally manifest, and at such times, the promise of American politics becomes its central agony.”
Whether debating health care, taxes, immigration or war, Americans invariably invoke the founding values to challenge perceived injustices. Reforms cannot merely be necessary or sensible; they must be articulated and defended in terms of the creed. This is why Trump’s opponents attack his policies by declaring not only that they are wrong but that “that’s not who we are.” As Huntington puts it, “Americans divide most sharply over what brings them together.”
The book looks back to the Revolutionary War, the Jacksonian age, the Progressive era and the 1960s as moments of high creedal passions, and Huntington’s descriptions capture America today. In such moments, he writes, discontent is widespread, and authority and expertise are questioned; traditional values of liberty, individualism, equality and popular control of government dominate public debates; politics is characterized by high polarization and constant protest; hostility toward power, wealth and inequality grows intense; social movements focused on causes such as women’s rights and criminal justice flourish; and new forms of media emerge devoted to advocacy and adversarial journalism.
Huntington even predicts the timing of America’s next fight: “If the periodicity of the past prevails,” he writes, “a major sustained creedal passion period will occur in the second and third decades of the twenty-first century.”
We’re right on schedule.
There is a cyclical nature to our passions, Huntington argues. Indignation cannot endure long, so cynicism supplants it, a belief that all are corrupt, and we learn to tolerate the gap between ideals and reality. (Today we might call this the “lol nothing matters” stage.) Eventually hypocrisy takes over and we deny the gap altogether — until the next wave of moralizing. In the Trump era, moralism, cynicism and hypocrisy coexist. Not peacefully.
The creed is relevant not just because it produces America’s divisions and aspirations, but because it provides a spare, elegant definition of what it means to be American. It is not about ethnic identity or religious faith, Huntington writes, but about political belief. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” begins the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, and Huntington uses the line to define us. “Who holds these truths? Americans hold these truths. Who are Americans? People who adhere to these truths. National identity and political principle were inseparable.”
In this telling, the American Dream matters most because it is never fulfilled, the reconciliation of liberty and inequality never complete. Even so, “American Politics” is not an entirely pessimistic book. “Critics say that America is a lie because its reality falls so short of its ideals,” Huntington writes in its final lines. “They are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope.”
Over the subsequent two decades, Huntington lost hope. In his final book, “Who Are We?,” which he emphasizes reflect his views not just as a scholar but also as a patriot, Huntington revises his definitions of America and Americans. Whereas once the creed was paramount, here it is merely a byproduct of the Anglo-Protestant culture — with its English language, Christian faith, work ethic and values of individualism and dissent — that he now says forms the true core of American identity.
Threatening that core, Huntington writes, is the ideology of multiculturalism; the new waves of immigrants from Latin America, especially Mexico, whom Huntington believes are less able to assimilate than past immigrants; and the threat of the Spanish language, which Huntington treats as a disease infecting the cultural and political integrity of the United States. “There is no Americano dream,” he asserts. “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican-Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.”
The Huntington of 1981, apparently, was just wrong. When listing academics who had — inaccurately, he now insists — defined Americans by their political beliefs, Huntington quotes an unnamed scholar who once eloquently described Americans as inseparable from the self-evident truths of the Declaration. Unless you recognize the passage from “American Politics” or bother to check the endnotes, you have no idea he is quoting himself. It’s as close to a wink as you’ll find in Huntington’s angriest book.
The principles of the creed are merely “markers of how to organize a society,” Huntington decides. “They do not define the extent, boundaries, or composition of that society.” For that, he contends, you need kin and culture; you must belong. He claims that Latin American immigrants and their offspring do not disperse throughout the country as thoroughly as past immigrants, worries they seek only welfare benefits, and warns they’ll leave behind fewer opportunities for native workers. Huntington also trafficks in stereotypes, even citing Mexico’s supposed “mañana syndrome.”
Maybe Mexicans are lazy except when they’re taking everyone’s jobs.
I don’t know why Huntington changed his mind. Perhaps he felt the abstractions of the creed could no longer withstand the din of America’s multiplicity, or maybe mixing scholarship and patriotism does a disservice to both. Either way, anyone arguing for border walls and deportation forces will find much to like in this new incarnation, because Huntington describes the Hispanic threat with militaristic imagery. “Mexican immigration is leading toward the demographic reconquista of areas Americans took from Mexico by force in the 1830s and 1840s,” he writes, stating that the United States is experiencing an “illegal demographic invasion.”
Huntington blames pliant politicians and intellectual elites who uphold diversity as the new prime American value, largely because of their misguided guilt toward victims of alleged oppression. So they encourage multiculturalism over a more traditional American identity, he says, and they embrace free trade and porous borders despite the public’s protectionist preferences. It is an uncanny preview of the battles of 2016. Denouncing multiculturalism as “anti-European civilization,” Huntington calls for a renewed nationalism devoted to preserving and enhancing “those qualities that have defined America since its founding.”
Little wonder that, long before Trump cultivated the alt-right and Hillary Clinton denounced the “deplorables” in our midst, Huntington foresaw a backlash against multiculturalism from white Americans. “One very plausible reaction would be the emergence of exclusivist sociopolitical movements,” he writes, “composed largely but not only of white males, primarily working-class and middle-class, protesting and attempting to stop or reverse these changes and what they believe, accurately or not, to be the diminution of their social and economic status, their loss of jobs to immigrants and foreign countries, the perversion of their culture, the displacement of their language, and the erosion or even evaporation of the historical identity of their country. Such movements would be both racially and culturally inspired and could be anti-Hispanic, anti-black, and anti-immigration.” The more extreme elements in such movements, Huntington notes, fear “the replacement of the white culture that made America great by black or brown cultures that are . . . in their view, intellectually and morally inferior.”
Yes, in 2004, Huntington warned of a racist tide focused on protecting that which makes America great.
Having redefined the substance of American identity, Huntington ties its continued salience to war. “The Revolution produced the American people, the Civil War the American nation, and World War II the epiphany of Americans’ identification with their country,” he writes in “Who Are We?” Born in principle, American identity now survives by steel. When the Soviet threat receded, the United States needed a new foe, and “on September 11, 2001,” Huntington declares, “Osama bin Laden ended America’s search.”
This is a conflict he had long anticipated. In his 1996 book proclaiming a clash of civilizations, he writes that the West will continue its slow decline relative to Asia and the Islamic world. While economic dynamism drives Asia’s rise, population growth in Muslim nations “provides recruits for fundamentalism, terrorism, insurgency, and migration.” Much as Trump mocks politicians who refuse to decry “radical Islamic terrorism,” Huntington criticizes American leaders such as Bill Clinton who argued that the West had no quarrel with Islam, only with violent extremists. “Fourteen hundred years of history demonstrate otherwise,” he remarks.
Huntington’s clash has been caricatured as a single-minded call to arms against Muslims, and certainly the argument is neither so narrow nor so simple. He is probably more concerned with China and fears a “major war” if Washington challenges Beijing’s rise as Asia’s hegemon. Yet the threat Huntington sees from the Muslim world goes far beyond terrorism or religious extremism. He worries of a broader Islamic resurgence, with political Islam as only one part of “the much more extensive revival of Islamic ideas, practices, and rhetoric and the rededication to Islam by Muslim populations.” Huntington cites scholars warning of the spread of Islamic legal concepts in the West, decries the “inhospitable nature of Islamic culture” for democracy and suggests that Islam will prevail in the numbers game against Christianity. In the long run, “Mohammed wins out,” he states. “Christianity spreads primarily by conversion, Islam by conversion and reproduction.”
The vision evokes the zero-sum rhetoric of Trump political strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who was a force behind the administration’s travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries, and of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who authored a 2016 book heralding a multi-generational U.S. conflict against Islam’s “failed civilization.” Huntington, at least, has the grace to consider two sides of the clash.
“The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism,” he writes. “It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power. The problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U.S. Department of Defense. It is the West, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to extend that culture throughout the world.”
He does not regard Western values as universal. They are ours alone.
While Huntington foresees an America roiled by self-doubt, white nationalism and enmity against Islam, he does not predict the rise of a Trump-like leader in the United States.
But he would have recognized the type.
Consider his earliest books. In “Political Order in Changing Societies” (1968), Huntington examines how Latin American, African and Asian countries in the throes of economic modernization struggled to adapt their politics and incorporate new groups with new demands. The result, Huntington explains, was not political development but “political decay.”
And what sort of authorities personify this decay? Across the developing world, Huntington saw “the dominance of unstable personalistic leaders,” their governments rife with “blatant corruption . . . arbitrary infringement of the rights and liberties of citizens, declining standards of bureaucratic efficiency and performance, the pervasive alienation of urban political groups, the loss of authority by legislatures and courts, and the fragmentation and at times complete disintegration of broadly based political parties.”
These self-styled revolutionaries thrive on divisiveness. “The aim of the revolutionary is to polarize politics,” Huntington explains, “and hence he attempts to simplify, to dramatize, and to amalgamate political issues into a single, clear-cut dichotomy.” Such leaders attract new rural voters via “ethnic and religious appeals” as well as economic arguments, only to quickly betray their aspirations.
“A popular demagogue may emerge,” Huntington writes, “develop a widespread but poorly organized following, threaten the established interests of the rich and aristocrats, be voted into political office, and then be bought off by the very interests which he has attacked.” Such interests include those of the leaders’ close relatives, he explains, because for them “no distinction existed between obligations to the state and obligation to the family.”
Huntington’s “The Soldier and the State” (1957), a study of civilian-military relations, is instructive on the self-regard of such leaders, especially when the author contrasts the professionalism of military officers with the imperiousness of fascist strongmen. “Fascism emphasizes the supreme power and ability of the leader, and the absolute duty of subordination to his will,” Huntington writes. The fascist is intuitive, with “little use or need for ordered knowledge and practical, empirical realism. He celebrates the triumph of the Will over external obstacles.”
Such obstacles take the form of popular protests against unpopular leaders. Today, some writers even find solace in our national upheaval, arguing that the activism and energy Trump’s election has wrought will strengthen U.S. democracy. But in a book titled “The Crisis of Democracy” (1975), Huntington examines a time of similar civic resurgence, and is not encouraged by the outcome.
“The 1960s witnessed a dramatic renewal of the democratic spirit in America,” Huntington writes. Not yet dismissive of identity politics, he praises the “markedly higher levels of self-consciousness” and mobilization on the part of African Americans, Latinos, students and women in that era, noting that “the spirit of equality [and] the impulse to expose and correct inequities were abroad in the land.” The problem, he explains, is that the political system also became weighed down by popular mistrust, however deserved, of American institutions. “The vitality of democracy in the 1960s,” he writes, “raised questions about the governability of democracy in the 1970s.”
The biggest questions involved the highest office. “Probably no development of the 1960s and 1970s has greater import for the future of American politics than the decline in the authority, status, influence, and effectiveness of the presidency,” Huntington writes. He fears that a delegitimized executive threatened not just national cohesion but national security. “If American citizens don’t trust their government, why should friendly foreigners? If American citizens challenge the authority of American government, why shouldn’t unfriendly governments?”
Huntington was writing in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, and now the current White House faces its own crisis of credibility. Trump, so obsessed with his electoral victory that a framed map of the 2016 results was recently spotted in the White House, would do well to heed warnings about governability.
“Once he is elected president,” Huntington writes, “the president’s electoral coalition has, in a sense, served its purpose. The day after his election the size of his majority is almost — if not entirely — irrelevant to his ability to govern the country. . . . What counts then is his ability to mobilize support from the leaders of the key institutions in society and government.”
It feels odd to write of Trump as a Huntingtonian figure. One is instinctual and anti-intellectual; the other was deliberate and theoretical. One communicates via inarticulate bursts; the other wrote books for the ages. I imagine Huntington would be apprehensive about a commander-in-chief so indifferent to a foreign power’s assault on the U.S. electoral system, and one displaying so little of the work ethic and reverence for the rule of law that Huntington admired.
What makes the professor a prophet for our time is not just that his vision is partially reflected in Trump’s message and appeal, but that he understood well the dangers of the style of politics Trump practices.
Where they come together, I believe, is in their nostalgic and narrow view of American uniqueness. Huntington, like Trump, wanted America to be great, and came to long for a restoration of values and identity that he believed made the country not just great but a nation apart. However, if that path involves closing ourselves off, demonizing newcomers and demanding cultural fealty, then how different are we, really, from anywhere else? The central agony of the Trump era is that rather than becoming great, America is becoming unexceptional.
And that’s not a clash of civilizations. It’s a civilization crashing.
Books cited in this essay:
- The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations by Samuel P. Huntington. Belknap Press. 534 pp. 1957.
- Political Order in Changing Societies by Samuel P. Huntington. Yale University Press. 488 pp. 1968.
- The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission by Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington and Joji Watanuki. New York University Press. 220 pp. 1975.
- American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony by Samuel P. Huntington. Belknap Press. 303 pp. 1981.
- The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington. Simon & Schuster. 368 pp. 1996.
- Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity by Samuel P. Huntington. Simon & Schuster. 428 pp. 2004.