While America Was SleepingRoundup
tags: foreign policy, militarism
Alfred W. McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, the now-classic book which probed the conjuncture of illicit narcotics and covert operations over 50 years, and most recently In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Dispatch Books).
After four years of Donald Trump’s fitful tenure, America is awakening from a long, troubled sleep to discover, like the fictional character Rip Van Winkle, that the world it once knew has changed beyond all recognition.
In that classic American tale by Washington Irving published in 1819, an amiable but shiftless farmer strolls out of his colonial village to go hunting in the Catskill Mountains. There he happens upon a group of mysterious men, drinks deep from their keg of liquor, and falls into a long sleep. He awakens to find that he’s grown a white beard down to his belly and his youth has withered into an unrecognizable old age. Walking back to the village, he discovers his wife is long dead and their house in ruins. Meanwhile, the sign above the village pub where he whiled away so many pleasant hours no longer bears the face of his beloved King George, the British monarch, but has been replaced by someone named General Washington. Inside, the convivial chatter of colonial days has given way to fervid electioneering for something called Congress, whatever that might be. Incredibly, Rip Van Winkle had slept right through the American Revolution.
While this country was similarly sleepwalking through the fever dream of President Donald Trump’s version of America First, the world kept changing as decisively as it did during those seven years when General Washington’s Continentals fought the British Redcoats. Just as King George suffered a searing defeat that cost him the 13 colonies, so the United States has, with similarly stunning speed, now lost its leadership of the international community.
When empires decline and fall, they seldom collapse in the sort of sudden apocalypse portrayed in a monumental series of paintings entitled “The Course of Empire” by another denizen of the Catskill Mountains, the renowned artist Thomas Cole. His 1836 painting in that series, now appropriately enough hung at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, shows a “savage enemy” plundering a grand imperial capital whose inhabitants, debased by years of luxurious living, can only flee in terror while women are raped and buildings burn.
Empires, however, usually experience a long, less dramatic decline before they fall in the Roman fashion, thanks to events whose logic only becomes apparent years or even decades later, as historians try to sort through the rubble. So it’s likely to be in what, until mid-last week, was (and still in many ways remains) Donald Trump’s America, where the signs of decline are as erratic as they are omnipresent.
The most telling harbinger of that decline, Trump himself, is now in exile at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida. Ten years ago in an essay for TomDispatch entitled “Four Scenarios for the End of the American Century by 2025,” I suggested that U.S. global hegemony would end not with Thomas Cole’s apocalyptic bang, but instead with the whimper of empty populist rhetoric. “Riding a political tide of disillusionment and despair,” I wrote in December 2010, “a far-right patriot captures the presidency with thundering rhetoric, demanding respect for American authority and threatening military retaliation or economic reprisal. The world pays next to no attention as the American Century ends in silence.”
Trump’s election in 2016 made all too real what, until then, had only seemed to me a troubling possibility. With a legerdemain worthy of that nineteenth-century showman P.T. Barnum’s bag of bunkum (like the supposed Cardiff Giant or the Fiji Island Mermaid), Trump’s TV show “The Apprentice” presented The Donald as a self-made billionaire of extraordinary financial savvy. Who better to rescue America from the job losses, stagnant wages, and foreign competition brought on by economic globalization? But Trump had cheated his way into an Ivy League college; many of his businesses had gone bankrupt; and his much-vaunted entrepreneurial flair came down essentially to frittering away a $400 million inheritance from his father. As journalist H.L. Mencken predicted back in 1920, America had finally come to the point where “the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
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