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MICHAEL BARONE: It seems like every 50 years …

by Michael Barone | March 27, 2023 at 4:45 a.m.

Amid news that Donald Trump is about to be indicted by a hyper-partisan prosecutor and of his hysterical responses, and prompted by vagrant reading about the War of 1812 and Woodrow Wilson's violations of civil liberties in World War I, a thought occurred to me: America seems to go crazy every 50 years or so.

Start with the War of 1812, about 50 years after colonies' Stamp Act protests. There's a touch of absurdity here. Because of the slowness of trans-Atlantic communication, Congress declared war because of British restrictions on neutral shipping six days after the British repealed them. Americans won their major land victory in New Orleans, 15 days after the peace treaty had already been signed in Ghent.

The Americans' strategy was based on a delusion--that Canadians would welcome American conquest--and American tactics were riddled with blunders. Detroit was surrendered without a shot, and Washington was left undefended, allowing the British to burn the White House.

The treaty left in place the status quo, and the positive response was psychological, verging on delusional. In historian Gordon Wood's words, this inconclusive war "did finally establish for Americans that independence and nationhood of the United States that so many had doubted."

Almost exactly 50 years later, the U.S. plunged into civil war, which outgoing President James Buchanan might have prevented by sending troops to secessionist South Carolina, as his mentor Andrew Jackson had done almost 30 years earlier.

Fast-forward 50 years to the only American president who spent his boyhood in the Confederacy, watching Sherman march into South Carolina, Woodrow Wilson. After Congress, with 56 dissenters, voted to enter World War I, Wilson superintended the over-broad 1917 Espionage Act.

As Adam Hochschild vividly recounts in "American Midnight," the Wilson administration imprisoned those who spoke against the war or the draft, including Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs. Wilson deported aliens supposedly involved in radical activities under the supervision of the 20-something J. Edgar Hoover.

As Hochschild makes clear, it wasn't only the Wilson administration that went crazy. Radical anarchists set off deadly bombs on Wall Street, at Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's house, and across the street from Assistant Navy Secretary Franklin Roosevelt.

Sometimes people learn from mistakes. In World War II, FDR, who witnessed Wilson's excesses up close, didn't seize the railroads or shipyards. With the important exception of the Japanese American internments, he also didn't violate civil liberties as Wilson had.

Unfortunately, sometimes people don't learn. Fifty years ago, America saw a tripling, roughly, of violent crime and welfare dependency in a decade, even as prison populations were reduced and police delegitimized. A rash of hundreds of violent bombings was followed by serious government misconduct.

Ironically, after the 1964-68 civil rights acts changed America for the better, there were cries that racist treatment was as bad as ever. America was going crazy again, on schedule.

And so it has in the last few years. After the election and re-election of the first Black president, we heard Black Lives Matter, like the Black Panthers 50 years before, proclaim that America was even more racist than it ever had been.

Since the "mostly peaceful" riots of summer 2020, there have been sharp increases in violent crime and moves to defund and delegitimize police departments, which are in fact far less racist than in the 1960s.

America went crazy too over covid, in my view, by treating a virus fatal to just a small segment of the population as if, like Ebola, it had an infection fatality rate of around 50 percent. Authorities imposed lockdowns and mandates while ignoring economic costs and lasting collateral damage, like adults missing cancer screenings and children missing first and second grade.

Like Woodrow Wilson's propagandist George Creel, government agencies suppressed as "misinformation" speech and arguments, including many that turned out to be accurate.

Another symptom of America going crazy is presidential dysfunction. Fifty years ago, the highly intelligent and experienced Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were ousted at ages 60 and 61 because of Vietnam and Watergate. Now, despite repeated stumbles, the inexperienced and distractable Donald Trump and the (according to bipartisan Defense Secretary Robert Gates) nearly-always-wrong Joe Biden are seeking second terms they would complete at ages 82 and 86, respectively.

Having witnessed and written for publication during two 50-years-apart episodes of craziness, I seek consolation from Adam Smith's reflection, after Britain lost the 13 colonies, that "there is a great deal of ruin in a nation." But I hope America will do a better job, 50 years hence, of learning from this episode's mistakes.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

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