There was a period in my later life when I used to say that, from the age of 20 to my late sixties, I was always 40 years old; I was, that is, an old young man and a young old one. Tell that to my legs now. Of course, there’s nothing faintly strange in such a development. It’s the most ordinary experience in life: to face your own failing self, those muscles that no longer work the way they used to, those brain cells jumping ship with abandon and taking with them so many memories, so much knowledge you’d rather keep aboard. If you’re of a certain age — I just turned 74 — you know exactly what I mean.
And that, as they say, is life. In a sense, each of us might, sooner or later, be thought of as a kind of failed experiment that ends in the ultimate failure: death.
And in some ways, the same thing might be said of states and empires. Sooner or later, there comes a moment in the history of the experiment when those muscles start to falter, those brain cells begin jumping ship, and in some fashion, spectacular or not, it all comes tumbling down. And that, as they say (or should say), is history. Human history, at least.
In a sense, it may hardly be more out of the ordinary to face a failing experiment in what, earlier in this century, top officials in Washington called “nation building” than in our individual lives. In this case, the nation I’m thinking about, the one that seems in the process of being unbuilt, is my own. You know, the one that its leaders — until Donald Trump hit the Oval Office — were in the habit of eternally praising as the most exceptional, the most indispensable country on the planet, the global policeman, the last or sole superpower. Essentially, it. Who could forget that extravagant drumbeat of seemingly obligatory self-praise for what, admittedly, is still a country with wealth and financial clout beyond compare and more firepower than the next significant set of competitors combined?
Still, tell me you can’t feel it? Tell me you couldn’t sense it when those election results started coming in that November night in 2016? Tell me you can’t sense it in the venomous version of gridlock that now grips Washington? Tell me it's not there in the feeling in this country that we are somehow besieged (no matter our specific politics), demobilized, and no longer have any real say in a political system of, by, and for the billionaires, in a Washington in which the fourth branch of government, the national security state, gets all the dough, all the tender loving care (except, at this moment, from our president), all the attention for keeping us “safe” from not much (and certainly not itself)? In the meantime, most Americans get ever less and have ever less say about what they’re not getting. No wonder in the last election the country’s despairing heartland gave a hearty orange finger to the Washington elite.
States of failure
“Populist” is the term of the moment for the growing crew of Donald Trumps around the planet. It may mean “popular,” but it doesn’t mean “population”; it doesn’t mean “We, the People.” No matter what that band of Trumps might say, it’s increasingly not “we” but “them,” or in the case of Donald J. Trump in particular, “him.”
No, the United States is not yet a failed or failing state, not by a long shot, not in the sense of countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen that have been driven to near-collapse by America’s twenty-first-century wars and accompanying events. And yet, doesn’t it seem ever easier to think of this country as, in some sense at least, a failing (and flailing) experiment?
And don’t just blame it on Donald Trump. That’s the easy path to an explanation. Something had to go terribly wrong to produce such a president and his tweet-stormed version of America. That should seem self-evident enough, even to — though they would mean it in a different way — The Donald’s much-discussed base. After all, if they hadn’t felt that, for them, the American experiment was failing, why would they have voted for an obvious all-American con man? Why would they have sent into the White House someone whose Apprentice-like urge is to fire us all?
It’s hard to look back on the last decades and not think that democracy has been sinking under the imperial waves. I first noticed the term “the imperial presidency” in the long-gone age of Richard Nixon, when his White House began to fill with uniformed flunkies and started to look like something out of an American fantasy of royalty. The actual power of that presidency, no matter who was in office, has been growing ever since. Whatever the Constitution might say, war, for instance, is now a presidential, not a congressional, prerogative (as is, to take a recent example, the imposition of tariffs on the products of allies on “national security” grounds).
As Chalmers Johnson used to point out, in the Cold War years the president gained his own private army. Johnson meant the CIA, but in this century you would have to add America’s ever vaster, still expanding Special Operations forces (SOF), now regularly sent on missions of every sort around the globe. He’s also gained his own private air force: the CIA’s Hellfire-missile armed drones that he can dispatch across much of the planet to kill those he’s personally deemed his country’s enemies. In that way, in this century — despite a ban on presidential assassinations, now long ignored — the president has become an actual judge, jury, and executioner. The term I’ve used in the past has been assassin-in-chief.
All of this preceded President Trump. In fact, if presidential wars hadn’t become the order of the day, I doubt his presidency would have been conceivable. Without the rise of the national security state to such a position of prominence; without much of government operations descending into a penumbra of secrecy on the grounds that “We, the People” needed to be “safe,” not knowledgeable; without the pouring of taxpayer dollars into America’s intelligence agencies and the U.S. military; without the creation of a war-time Washington engaged in conflicts without end; without the destabilization of significant parts of the planet; without the war on terror — it should really be called the war for terror — spreading terrorism; without the displacement of vast populations (including something close to half of Syria’s by now) and the rise of the populist right on both sides of the Atlantic on the basis of the resulting anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiments, it’s hard to imagine him. In other words, before he ever descended that Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race in 2015, empire had, politically speaking, trumped democracy and a flawed but noble experiment that began in 1776 was failing.
Had that imperial power not been exercised in such a wholesale way in this century, Donald Trump would have been unimaginable. Had President George W. Bush and his cronies not decided to invade Iraq, The Donald probably would have been inconceivable as anything but the proprietor of a series of failed casinos in Atlantic City, the owner of what he loves to call “property” (adorned with those giant golden letters), and a reality-TV host. And the American people would not today be his apprentices.
When that “very stable genius” (as he reminded us again recently) inherited such powers long in the making, he also inherited the power to use them in ways that would have been unavailable to the president of a country that had genuine “checks and balances,” one in which the people knew what was going on and in some sense directed it. Consider it a sign of the times that he’s the second president to lose the popular vote in this 18-year-old century — the first, of course, being George W. "Hanging Chad" Bush. So perhaps it’s only proper that President Trump has now nominated to the Supreme Court a judge who was once a Republican operative for the very legal team focused on stopping the recount of those contested Florida ballots in 2000 — a recount the Supreme Court did indeed halt, throwing the election to Bush. Note that Brett Kavanaugh is also the perfect justice for America’s new imperial age of decline, one who genuinely believes that the law should read: the president, while in office, is above it. Think of him as Caligula’s future enabler.
In other words, in the twenty-first century, Donald Trump is proof indeed that the American experiment in democracy may be coming to an unseemly end in a president with all the urges of an autocrat (and so many other urges as well). Or think of it this way: the contest — from early on an essential part of American life — between democracy and empire seems to be ending with empire the victor. However — and here may be Donald Trump’s particular significance — empire, too, looks to be heading toward some kind of ultimate failure. He himself is visibly a force for imperial demolition. He seems intent — as in the recent abusive NATO meeting and the chaotic get-together with Russian President Vladimir Putin — on dismantling the very world that imperial America built for itself in the wake of World War II. You know, the one in which it was to be the ultimate and eternal victor in a rivalry between imperial powers that had begun in perhaps the fifteenth century, reached its peak when only two “super” rivals were left to face each other in the Cold War, and ended with a single power seemingly triumphant and alone on planet Earth.
How quickly those historically unique dreams of global dominion fell apart in the “infinite wars” of this century. Think of Donald Trump as the overly ripe fruit of that failure, that endless imperial moment that never quite was. Think of him as the daemon in the (malfunctioning) global machinery of a world that is itself — as in Brexiting “Europe” — evidently beginning to come apart at the seams amid war, a flood of global refugees, and one factor never experienced before (on which more below). Think of America as being caught up in some only half-recognized United Stexit moment, though what exactly we are withdrawing from may be less than clear.
Still, bad as any moment might be, you can always hope for, dream about, and work for so much better, as so many have over the centuries. After all, everything I’ve described remains the norm of history. What empire hasn’t had its Caligulas, its Trumps? What empire hasn’t, in the end, gone down? What democratic experiment hasn’t sooner or later faltered? Even the best of experiments come up short as autocrats take power and hand their rule on to their sons, only to be overthrown by some revolt, some new attempt to make better sense of this world, which itself falters sooner or later. And so it goes.
Again, that, as they say, is history, a series of failed experiments, but ones that always end, in their own fashion, with hope still alive for a better, fairer, juster world. Yes, a particular failure might be terrible for you, your community, even several generations of yous, but it, too, will pass and you can expect our better angels to reappear someday, even if not in your lifetime — or at least until recently you could do so.
The ultimate experiment
There is, however, another experiment, a planet-wide one that seems to be failing as well. You could think of it as humanity’s experiment with industrial civilization, which is disastrously altering the environment of this previously welcoming world of ours. I’m referring, of course, to what the greenhouse gases from the fossil fuels we’ve been burning in such profusion since the eighteenth century are doing to our planet.
Whether you call it climate change or global warming, the one thing it isn’t — despite the fact that we’ve done it — is history. Not human history anyway. After all, its effects will exist on a time scale that dwarfs our own. If allowed to play out to its fullest, it could destroy civilization. And ironically enough, unlike so many of our experiments, this was one we didn’t even know we were conducting for something like a century and a half. So consider it an irony that it’s the one likely to endanger every other imaginable experiment. If not somehow halted in a reasonably decisive fashion, it could not only inundate coastal cities, turn verdant lands into parched landscapes, and create weather extremes presently hard to imagine, but produce heat that will be devastating.
And yet don’t give us any kind of a free pass on this one. Despite those endless years of not knowing what we were doing, ignorance can’t be pled. Increasing numbers of us (including the giant oil companies who did everything humanly possible to keep the news from the rest of us) have known about this since at least the 1960s. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s science advisory committee sent him a report that highlighted a human-caused warming of the planet from the carbon dioxide burned off by fossil fuels. It included remarkably accurate projections of the increased heat to come in the twenty-first century and of other effects of climate change, including sea level rise and the warming of sea waters. So don’t say that no one was warned. As time went on, we’ve been warned again and again.
And for this, too, Donald Trump can’t be blamed, but his presence in the White House is now a powerful symbol of a human failure to grasp the dangers involved. Talk about a symbolic act of self-destruction: the American people put a fierce climate denier in the White House. He, in turn, has brought his passionate 1950s-style fantasies of an even more oil-fueled global future with him. He has, among other things, appointed a remarkable set of Republican climate-change doubters and deniers to crucial positions throughout his administration. He’s moved to withdraw this country from the Paris climate accord, while powering up fossil-fuel and greenhouse-gas-producing projects of every sort and weakeningthe drive to develop alternative energy sources; he has, that is, done everything in his power to stoke global warming.
Along with the actions of the CEOs of the giant oil companies, this will surely prove to be the greatest criminal enterprise in history, since it takes the all-time largest greenhouse gas emitter out of the running (except at the state and local level) when it comes to impeding global warming. In other words, whatever else he may be, President Donald Trump seems singularly intent on being a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to human history.
Since Lucy walked upright by that African lake three million years ago, this has been a remarkably welcoming planet for the human experiment. If, in the coming century, climate change hits full force, it won’t just be a matter of refugees in the hundreds of millions or individual deaths in countless numbers, or some failing democracy that became an empire. It could mean the failure of the whole human experiment in ways that are still hard to grasp. It could mean no more chance for failure, The End.
That’s something worth working against. That’s a failure no one in any possible future can afford.
In the meantime, here I am, another year closer to my own moment of “failure,” living in a potentially failing country on a potentially failing planet. Happy birthday to me.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His sixth and latest book, just published, is A Nation Unmade by War(Dispatch Books).
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