Decline and Fall of the American Empire

Blanca Alaníz, series Dios en la Tierra, digitalized analog photography, Mexico City, 2019.
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By TOM ENGLHARDT*

The meaning of your fall on a decaying planet.

We live in an age of opacity, as Rudy Giuliani pointed out in a courtroom recently: “In the regions of those complaining, they have been denied the opportunity to have an unobstructed observation and to be assured of their opacity; said Giuliani. 'I'm not sure what opacity means. It probably means what you can see right?” "That means you can't," said US judge Matthew Brann. “Big Words, [words difficult to understand] Your Honor”.

"big words in fact! And he couldn't be more right, whether he knew it or not. Thanks in part to him and the president he represents (Donald Trump) so avidly, even with hair dye or mascara running down his face, we find ourselves in an era where, to borrow a phrase from Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, we all see as if we were looking “through a darkened glass”.

As in the 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump is not the cause, but the symptom (and what a symptom!) of an American world collapsing. Then, as now, he somehow gathered into himself many of the worst impulses of a country that in this century has found itself at war not just with Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians and Somalis, but increasingly with itself, a true heavyweight. of a superpower that is already collapsing.

Here's some of what I wrote in June 2016 about Donald, a reminder that what's unfolding now, as bizarre as it is, wasn't so beyond imagination years ago.

“It has been relatively easy, at least until Trump arrived in the dizzying allure of the country (let alone the rest of the planet) to imagine that we live in a peaceful land, with most of its familiar markers still in their quiet places. In truth, however, the American world is becoming less and less like the one we still claim as ours and that old America appears more and more like a hollow shell, which is gestating something new and different.

“After all, can anyone really doubt that the representative democracy that once existed has been destroyed and is now in an advanced state of paralysis or that aspects of the country's infrastructure are slowly eroding and disintegrating and that little is being done regarding this? One can doubt that the classic form of division of powers is in crisis, from a Supreme Court without a member chosen by Congress to a national security state that flouts the law and that is less and less controlled and balanced and that is higher than the other powers”

By then, it should be obvious that Trump was, as I also wrote in the campaign year, a savage symptom of the decline of American imperial style on an increasingly hellish planet. And this, of course, four years before the pandemic or a wildfire season in the West that no one thought possible and a record 30 storms that more or less consumed two alphabets in an endless hurricane season.

In the most literal sense possible, Donald was our first presidential candidate in an imperial decline, and thus a genuine sign of the times. He swore he would make America great again, and in doing so, single-handedly among the American politicians of the times, he admitted that this country was not great at the time, that it was not like the rest of the American political class, the greatest, most exceptional. and most indispensable country in history, the only superpower left on Planet Earth.

An American World Without “New Deals” (Except for Billionaires)

          In that election year, the United States had already become something different again, and it was more than four years before the richest and most powerful country on the planet failed to contain a virus the way other advanced nations had. On the contrary, this country has reached shocking records of Covid-19 cases and deaths, numbers that previously could be associated with third world countries. You can practically hear the chants now as the (pandemic) numbers continue to increase exponentially: USA!USA! We are still number one! (in deaths due to the pandemic).

Somehow, that pre-pandemic year, a broke billionaire and former reality TV host instinctively captured the mood of the moment in a country never so free from unions, in a long decline if you were an ordinary citizen. By then, the abandonment of the white working class, lower middle class by the "New Democrats" was history; The party of Bill and Hillary Clinton was long gone, as Thomas Frank recently wrote in the newspaper The Guardian, “preaching more competence than ideology and reaching new voters: enlightened suburbanites; the 'connected workers', 'the apprentice class'; the winners in our new post-industrial society.”

Donald Trump entered the scene promising to serve the abandoned, white Americans whose dreams of a better life for themselves and their children were left in the dust in an increasingly unequal country. Increasingly embittered, they were, at best, taken for granted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's former party. (In the 2016 campaign, Clinton didn't even think visiting Wisconsin was worth the bother, and her campaign downplayed the very idea of ​​focusing on key inland states.). In the 2,5st century, there would be no “new deal” for them and they knew it. They have been losing ground (income) – on the order of $1975 trillion a year since XNUMX – to the same billionaires that Donald Trump so proudly called himself in a group of America that has become supersized, rich and powerful in a way that would be unimaginable a decade ago.

Upon entering the Oval Office, Trump was still offering scathing words, which rang bells at rallies after rallies where they could cajole him to death. At the same time, with the help of the Senate majority led by Mitch McConnell, he continued the process of abandonment by delivering a staggering tax cut to the 1% and those same corporations, enriching them like never before. And then, of course, the pandemic, which has only added even more billions to the fortunes of billionaires and various giant corporations (while granting the frontline workers who kept those companies afloat only the smallest, most fleeting “hazard pay” ).

Today, the coronavirus here in the United States can perhaps be accurately labeled “Trumpvirus”. After all, the President truly made it his own in a unique way. Through ignorance, denialism and a lack of care, he managed to spread the virus across the country (and, of course, even in the White House itself) in record fashion, holding demonstrations that were clearly instruments of death and destruction. All this would be even clearer if, in the 2020 election campaign, he would have just replaced MAGA [Make America Great Again - Make America Great Again] his slogan with MASA [Make America Sick Again - Make America Sick Again], because the country was in decline, but in a new way.

In other words, since 2016, Donald Trump, wrapped eternally in his own ego, has come to embody the very essence of a bifurcated country that was going down, down, down, if you weren't part of that group that goes up, up, up, the 1%. The moment when he returned from the Hospital after having Covid-19 himself, stepped onto a White House balcony and proudly ripped off his mask for the world to see, summed up his message, of this XNUMXst century American and his moment perfectly.

Saying goodbye to the American moment

Unique as Donald Trump may be at this point and overwhelming as Covid-19 may be for now, American history in recent years is anything but unique in history, at least as it has been described thus far. From the Black Death (bubonic plague) of the XNUMXth century to the Spanish flu of the early XNUMXth century, pandemics have been, in each form, of little importance and value. And as for the foolish rulers who made a spectacle of themselves, well, the Ancient Romans had their Nero and he was anything but unique in the backroom of history.

As for the fall, that is in the nature of history. Once known as “Imperial Powers” ​​or “Empires”, what we now call “Great Powers” ​​or “Super Powers”, had their moments in the Sun (even if it is the shadow for many of those they rule) and then they fell, all. Had it not been for this, Edward Gibbons' classic 6-volume work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, would never have gained the fame it did in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries.

Across the planet and throughout the ages, the rise and fall of imperialism has been an essential part, even a mechanically regular phenomenon, of human history since its inception. It was certainly the history of China, time and time again, and definitely the trajectory of the ancient Middle East. It was the essence of European History, from the Portuguese and Spanish Empires to the British Empire that rose in the 1917th century and finally fell (in essence for us) in the middle of the last century. And don't forget that other Cold War superpower, the Soviet Union, which emerged after the Russian Revolution of 1991 and grew and grew, only to implode in XNUMX after a (gulp![I]) disastrous war in Afghanistan, before 70 years after its emergence.

And none of this, as I say, is in itself anything special, not even for a genuinely global power like the United States. (What other country ever had 800 military bases scattered across the planet?) If this were history, as it always was, perhaps the only real shock would be the surprisingly bizarre sense of self-adulation felt by this country's leadership and the media pundits who followed them. after the Cold War's other superpower so surprisingly fell. In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Soviet Union's plunge to its grave in 1991, leaving behind an impoverished place once again known as Russia, they (the US) have become clearly delusional. They convinced themselves that History, as it had always been known, the very rise and fall and rise (and fall) that always had its repetitive tone, would somehow "do away" with this country above all else, forever and beyond.

Not even nearly three decades later, amidst the scenario of “wars forever” in which the US managed to impose its will on essentially no one and an ever-increasing chaos, divided, suffering from a pandemic, who does not doubt that this was a matter of a delusional thinking of the first order? Even in the past, it should have been pretty obvious that the United States would sooner or later follow the Soviet Union out, however slowly, engulfed in a kind of self-worship.

A quarter of a century later, Trump would be living proof that this country was anything but immune to history, even if few recognize him as the messenger of the ongoing downfall. Four years later, in a country devastated by the pandemic with its economy sinking, its military power frustrated, its population divided, hungry and increasingly well armed, that sense of failure (already felt so strongly in the American countryside that embraced Donald in 2016) it is no longer felt as something alien.

Despite the weirdness of Donald Trump himself, this would all just be more of the same if not for one thing. There is an extra factor now at work which is practically guaranteed to make the story of the decline and fall of the American Empire different from the declines and falls of other empires of past centuries. And no, this has nothing to do with Trump, although he has denied climate change as a “Chinese hoax” and, in every possible way, thanks to his love of fossil fuels, giving as much help as possible, opening land for the extracting oil from all types of drilling, scrapping environmental regulations that might have held back the oil giants. And don't forget your penchant for ridiculing any alternative energy.

I could move on, of course, but why bother. You know that part of history well. You are living it.

Yes, in its own unique way, America is falling and will do so with Trump, Joe Biden or MitchMcConnell running the show. But here's what's new: for the first time, a great imperial power is falling, just as the Earth, at least the one humanity has known for these thousands of years, seems to be falling too. And that means there's no other way, no matter what Trump might think, the fact is that we're looking at worse and worse storms, fires or massive flooding, the melting of glaciers and the rising sea levels that will come with them, the record temperatures and everything in between, including the hundreds of millions likely to be displaced on a falling planet, thanks to the greenhouse gases released by the fossil fuels that Trump loves so much.

Without a doubt, the first genuine upheaval of the rise and fall process in human history – the first in history that potentially dealt with downfalls – came on August 6 and 9, 1945, when the US dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It soon became clear that such weaponry, collected in vast and scattered arsenals, had (and still has) the power to literally take history out of our hands. In this century, even a regional and limited war with such weapons could create a nuclear winter that could starve billions. This version of Armageddon has at least been postponed since August 1945, but humanity has proved perfectly capable of coming up with another version of the final disaster, even if its effects, no less dangerous, happen not with the speed of a nuclear weapon, but at the same time. over years, decades, centuries.

Donald Trump was the messenger from hell when it came to a decaying Empire on a decaying planet. Whether, in a changing world, the next empire or empires, China or other unknown powers that arise, can arise in the normal way remains to be seen. Just like on such a planet, another way of organizing human life, potentially better, more empathetic in dealing with the world and ourselves will be found.

Just know that the rise and fall of history as it always has, is no more. The rest, I suppose, is yet to be discovered, for better or worse.

*Tom Engelhardt is a journalist and editor. Author, among other books, of A Nation Unmade by War (Haymarket Books, 2018).

Translation: Bruno Bonzanini

Translator's note


[I] Gulp! Here the author uses a North American expression, used to represent the act of swallowing something very quickly when you are nervous or upset, referring to the recent US invasion and occupation in Afghanistan and the difficult moment that the western nation is going through at the moment.

 

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