Trumpism and empire
Devon Chenelle | Friday, January 20, 2017
On Feb. 15, 1898, the USS Maine sunk in the Havana Harbor. Within the year, the Spanish-American War had begun, and with it America’s path towards global empire. The Treaty of Paris that ended the war ceded vast territories to the United States, to the despair of Mark Twain, “opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land,” and Senator George Frisbie Hoar, who presciently remarked “this Treaty will make us a vulgar, commonplace empire.”
The Sinic and Islamic worlds have long sustained the ideal, if not the reality, of universal rulership. Not so in the West, home to innumerable divided polities since the fall of Rome. Or it was, until, merely 47 years after the Maine’s sinking, President Harry Truman detonated the atomic bomb. Standing atop World War II’s 100 million corpses, he was acclaimed Leader of the Free World. For the first time in 1,500 years, there was once again united leadership of the West.
After Rome unified Italy, it conquered the Greek lands surrounding it, bringing luxury and knowledge into the once-austere Roman Republic. Yet these triumphs were attended with profound consequences. Cato the Elder, Roman senator, declaimed, “The greater the empire grows … the more I fear that these things will capture us rather than we them.” He was rightfully fearful. The infusion of Hellenic mores eventually made it impossible to govern a cosmopolitan Roman people under their simple but virtuous ancestors’ laws. A century after Cato’s death, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and replaced a republic no longer sufficient for her peoples’ needs with an empire that was.
En route to the presidency, Donald Trump flouted nearly every “norm” of American politics, his rise fueled and permitted by our national institutions’ debility, as our banks generate financial disaster, our media provokes disbelief and our political parties promote populists and kleptocrats. However, The Donald’s triumph is not the final chapter in the popular rejection of the old consensus. Trump’s victory indicates, at least, that there will be more disruption before political order is restored, and at worst, that our republic’s latter days are at hand.
The republic’s current crisis is unsurprising, for modern America exists in fundamental tension: it acts like an empire, but attempts to administer itself like the republic it once was. Our constitution was conceived for a coastal strip of agricultural, precariously independent, former colonies governed by propertied white men. This legal structure can no longer govern a sprawling, multiethnic, and urban state whose imperial tentacles spread over billions of souls from Taiwan to Mogadishu.
America’s transition to imperial government began long ago — I wonder whether the founders would be more horrified by our massive standing army or modern readings of the Commerce Clause — but is now accelerating. Congress has not issued a declaration of war in 75 years, presidential use of executive orders to rule without Congress is now cemented precedent, and between the CIA, FBI and NSA, America now has its very own Praetorian Guard, ready and willing to intervene in the selection of their next master. The POTUS has ears, eyes, and fists everywhere; the blithe decision to give the office those appendages now appears more fateful than expedient as Donald Trump, known to publicly expound on the delights of revenge, is bestowed with near omnipotence.
Yet, despite how much people love to scream about Trump’s insanity, none seriously consider what the Trump phenomenon bodes for the future. All seem to share an unspoken assumption things won’t get any crazier once he’s actually president.
As Rome initially declined full sovereignty over the Mediterranean, so has the United States foregone direct power over its vast complex of vassals, allies and tributaries in favor of exercising a less onerous, if more frustrating, indirect authority. Yet such arrangements cannot last, for empire is, above all else, expensive. Driven by the military’s ravenous need for capital, Rome eventually took a firmer hand with her provincial clients. Trump’s demands that our allies “pay their own way” hint our empire is at a similar crossroads. Around the same time, the decay of Rome’s institutions transformed Roman politics into a contest of individual wills, auguring the republic’s final days. The past presidential contest could only be described similarly, though one candidate subjugated her party while the other sidelined his. America appears to have finally shed off the party politics Washington so feared. Yet we will never have another Washington, for it is as hard to imagine Trump spending his time in bucolic anonymity as it is to imagine George Washington caking himself in makeup to shout a catchphrase into TV cameras. None can know what the future holds, but after Trump, the Oval Office can never again host a Lincoln, though someday it may welcome an Octavian.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.