We’ve recovered before. In the late 1940s, a war-weary nation looked the other way as the Soviet Union occupied Eastern Europe and China went Communist. It was only after the North Korean invasion of the South that the United States, first under Harry Truman and then Dwight Eisenhower, faced up to its responsibilities​—​but at considerable cost in lives and treasure over the next decades as we fought wars that perhaps could have been avoided and endured a Cold War that needn’t have been as threatening as it was. In the late 1970s, a war-weary nation watched as Khomeini took over Iran and the Sandinistas Nicaragua. This time, the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan served as the wake-up call, answered first (to a degree) by Jimmy Carter, then resoundingly by Ronald Reagan.

So perhaps every 30 years America has to go through a moment of retreat and renewal. But a happy outcome isn’t assured. Barack Obama is no Harry Truman. The Republican party has no obvious Reagan​—​or Ike, for that matter, waiting in the wings.

And the conservative movement​—​a bulwark of American strength for the last several decades​—​is in deep disarray. Reading about some conservative organizations and Republican campaigns these days, one is reminded of Eric Hoffer’s remark, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” It may be that major parts of American conservatism have become such a racket that a kind of refounding of the movement as a cause is necessary. A reinvigoration of the Republican party also seems desirable, based on a new generation of leaders, perhaps coming​—​as did Ike and Reagan​—​from outside the normal channels.