Since Donald Trump burst forth from the half-reality of our million television screens and became, somehow, the 45th president of the United States, the principal fear of the serious and sober has been the possibility that he will fuck this empire up. In the run-up to last year’s election, sections of the left even welcomed this possibility, imagining, somehow, that Trump could bring some end to our global hegemony that was free of blood and ruins. Their hopes have been dashed. But the serious and sober remain worried. Despite heartening signs that this White House is as willing as any other to torture and incinerate civilians in the name of Pax Americana, despite early giddy comfort in the sight of freshly launched cruise missiles, despite a new commitment, this past week, to extend our fruitless slaughter in Afghanistan for the sake of children too young to kill and die there when the war began, despite all of this, our bashful aristocracy is still worried.
The reason is the same as always. “Let’s be honest,” tweeted Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, last month. “There’s nothing in the first 7 months of Trump’s presidency that makes one trust him to handle escalating a war.” The powerful liberal who once wondered whether Libya ought not pay us back for the privilege of being bombed is not concerned with the moral facts of the bloodbath we’ve committed these past sixteen years. She’s worried that Trump isn’t up to the job of administering the killing fields with honor.
Let's be honest. There's nothing in the first 7 months of Trump's presidency that makes one trust him to handle escalating a war.— Neera Tanden🖖🏼 (@neeratanden) August 22, 2017
Recall, of course, that Tanden represents the liberal side of our respectable discourse. Former Bush speechwriter and Atlantic hack David Frum, for the reactionaries, scoffs at Trump’s half-assed efforts to “boost [his] ratings by changing the plot line.” Frum would know. He’s the one who coined the phrase “Axis of Evil” for his old boss, and he’ll be damned if some goony amateur is going to plagiarize his greatest trick. Recall, of course, that between these two exists the vast majority of respectable and official opinion in the U.S., the nuance and centrism of civil servants and civility pundits who are concerned, chiefly, with the proper operation of this grotesque national mechanism. Last week, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Blackwater founder Erik Prince, in which the living parody-grotesque of Smedley Butler’s gangster-for-capitalism class argued that it was honorable for-profit mercenaries (like, for example, the kind that he offers at a low, low price) who would salvage our occupation of Afghanistan, not the troops. The argument was not received terribly well, even in centrist circles, but the complaint was not whether we ought to be in Afghanistan in the first place, but if he was disrespecting our troops, who merely serve the ends of capital without getting a fat share of the profits.
But even beyond them, in the radical fringes of the far-left and the ur-right that want more than a well-oiled machine, there is a belief that things could be some other way — that the right president, the right Congress, the right election could put an end to the destructive potential of the U.S. from the inside, and that we could do it alone, and voluntarily, if only we got our priorities straight. But we can’t. This machine isn’t built that way.
The trouble with empires is that so much depends upon their emperors, and the trouble for emperors is how little they matter to their empires. No Caesar could end Rome by accident, no matter how myopic or incompetent they could be. Not the madman Caligula, not the idiot Commodus, not the vainglorious Maximinus Thrax — the border might wax or wane, but it made no difference really. Even Caracella, who sacked his own city of Alexandria for staging a funny play at his expense, couldn't ruin the whole empire. The empire just stabbed him in the back and carried on.
Genghis Khan lived, conquered, and died, but the weather stopped his horde. Napoleon inherited the world after fleeing Egypt in disgrace. In three short generations, The Holy Roman Empire became the Austrian Empire became the Austro-Hungarian Empire became nothing, and only Ferdinand the Benign, who had twenty seizures every day, saw none of these losses under his own reign.
Every despot who has ever lived has learned, eventually, that an empire is a sluggish thing, set in its inertial path by history. They grow of their own power or die by their own weight, and one life’s worth of power can only steer the ship an inch, not a mile. Everyone who has ever served a despot knows that when their master learns this fact, the job is to ensure they don’t run the whole monstrosity aground in their frustration. That’s the one power an emperor does have, if they want it: to blow it all to hell on purpose. It must be terrible, for all of history’s ambitious little courtiers and strivers, to know that the greatest threat to their livelihood is an emperor so petty and spiteful that he’ll blow this whole sweet vicious con for all of them.
Every despot who has ever lived has learned, eventually, that an empire is a sluggish thing.
I do not know if Trump ever intended anything but the ordinary course of imperial violence, if there was ever any chance he would attempt to confirm the worst fears of his established critics and put an end to this experiment. I doubt it. But I do know that no matter his intentions, he was incapable, always incapable, of any course but the one laid out for every president. Violence is not a choice for an American emperor; it is a job requirement.
Americans, for the most part, scarcely comprehend how much depravity is committed in their name. They do not know, or perhaps do not care to know, that the U.S. maintains nearly 300,000 active military personnel in more than 150 nations other than our own. They do not know or care to know that we operate more than 800 military bases around the globe, more than 90 percent of all military bases maintained by any nation anywhere beyond their own borders. They do not know or do not care to know that since the atomic horror that we inflicted on Japan resulted in the establishment of the U.S. as the indisputable hegemony of the entire Earth, we have been responsible for the deaths of three million people in Korea, of three million people in Vietnam, of two million people in Laos and Cambodia, of a million people in Iraq, and that these figures do not even include the deaths, themselves reaching into the tens of millions, that we have caused through sanctions and through coups and through the genocides we permitted and encouraged in the name of anti-communism. These figures do not include the savagery inflicted here at home, through deprivation and poverty, and the repressive violence of the police state.
We do know, or at any rate we like to believe, that we are not a cruel people. That very well may be the case. We are not, at any rate, crueler than any other people. It’s only that without all of this scorched earth and terror, the world might stop bending to our will. OPEC might stop trading exclusively in dollars. The mineral wealth and the agricultural profits and the right to be the first and last nation consulted regarding the ambitions of any other — all of that might fall to someone else. Then where would we be? Less comfortable, perhaps. Less certain that it will be our drills and our missiles that suck the last rich bits of oil out of the earth and convert them into poison gas.
The trouble with empires is that so much depends upon their emperors, and the trouble for emperors is how little they matter to their empires.
Over the past several months, as Trump has proven himself as eager a steward of our war machine as any of his predecessors, American liberals have taken special pleasure in mocking Maureen Dowd’s 2016 column “Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk”. But the punchline, for the purveyors of American sobriety and What Is Normal, is not the idea that Hillary Clinton would’ve overseen an era of peace. It’s only that she would have seen our wars through competently, and now look, you stupid idiots, you’ve got a warmonger and an idiot in charge. It’s funny, a bit. The great tragedy and the great farce of contemporary life is that anyone elected to the presidency of the United States will be the greatest hawk the world has ever seen. “I’m really good at killing people,” President Obama joked near the end of his first term. But there’s no real talent to it. Any president can drop 25,000 bombs per year, just like Nobel Peace Prize laureate Obama did. Just nod at the generals, and sign your name where they tell you. You’d better. Emperors don’t control their empires, not really, but if we don’t keep the world at bay, there won’t be an American Empire left to rule the world at all.
As the nascent left builds itself into a movement capable of realizing its ambitions for a better American life, it should be mindful of the fact that its domestic agenda amounts, in the larger view, to a more equitable distribution of the spoils of our conquests. This is not to say that this ambition is unworthy in its narrow way — unless those living in the heart of empire are emancipated from their dependence on our oligarchy, they will never have the power to stop the endless war. But as difficult as that task may be, it is nonetheless one that can be accomplished by seizing currently existing power. The right governors, the right Congress, the right president — socialism at home is possible. But no president, no Congress, can stop the American Empire. Even politicians so committed, even politicians courageous and competent beyond all hitherto example, cannot be at once emperors and eclipsers of empire.
For that, we need a movement of the whole world, one that cannot worry whether or not some president is fit to rule, whether or not our secret police are besting our idiot king, whether or not, when all of it is settled, those of us accidentally born under the dubious protection of our military get to keep the comforts we’re accustomed to. Any sufficient vision of socialism, any better world we speak of, is one where there is no president and no empire at all. “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains,” says Marx. We’re the chains. “They have a world to win,” he says. For that, we’ll have to plan for how our own masters lose.