The decline of an empire or any powerful state implies many curious phenomena, many of which one can blatantly witness in the final months of the US election. Many of these phenomena are strangely paradoxical. Here’s an introductory list.
— Accepting a less domineering role in the world whilst becoming more aware of the wider world’s views of its former ruler.
— A shift in internal politics from cultural and philosophical debates to material debates (industrial management, the job market, wages, living standards)
— A decline in the notion that the country’s power is ordained by God and an increasingly private and individual form of spiritual practice.
— Internal debates gradually lose the assumption that the culture of the empire is disconnected to and hence superior to the rest of the world.
–A focus on internal law and order replacing the desire to export a certain system of government or morality to the rest of the world.
In each of these cases one sees important developments in the America of 2016 vis-à-vis that of the 1980s and 1990s.
First of all, one has seen the disappearance of the so-called ‘culture wars’, an incredibility childish period in internal American politics which seemed to ignore America’s role in the world and its repercussions whilst focusing instead on narrow, often managerial issues, infusing them with hyperbole and painting them as grand philosophical debates.
The so-called culture wars debates pinned the cultural left and right against each other in a vulgar race to see who was more effective at bringing personal or local matters into the national mainstream. Its most ridiculous point came when wives of prominent American politicians set up something called the Parents Music Resource Council, designed to protect teenagers from rock and roll records.
Only a nation confident of its role as a global hegemon could waste time and money on something so laughable. Perhaps the most memorable moment in this period was Frank Zappa claiming on CNN that Communism does not pose an existential threat to America, instead naming the treat as a sliding scale ‘fascist theocracy’.
The attempt to censor popular music is just one example of taking matters which are strictly personal and family issues and ballooning them into the wider public debate.
Other issues included debates on the state’s role in governing sexual practices, women’s health and the role of religion in the public space.
Whilst the America of the 1980s, when these ‘culture wars’ began, was one busily engaged in dominating the globe, the America of 2016, with her plethora of failed wars and a population frightened of ISIS style terrorism, is a country debating more grown up political issues.
It has to be said that Donald Trump did not personally force this change. Instead he astutely grasped the nettles of the changing political dynamic in the declining American empire and gave a voice to those who had grown tired of bloated rhetoric on minor issues – issues which Ron Paul has rightly always said are not the business of the US government – and instead focused on what does matter.
It demonstrates a shift in the ‘conservative movement’ from one which was never really conservative in the truest sense, to one which literally seeks to conserve what is left of prosperity and security.
No longer is it a war between leftist cultural intervention and rightist cultural intervention.
Trump shifted the focus to issues of security, not in terms of running the world, but in terms of being pragmatic about the world.
Trump questioned the false correlation between destabilising strong governments in the Middle East and US security to the real issue which is ‘why should the US harm potential allies, arm terror groups, dismiss bona-fide allies and then be surprised when hell is unleashed’?
Trump has also rightly questioned how spending billions of dollars on a NATO apparatus designed to provoke Russia does anything for the ordinary American? The answer is it does nothing for them except make their country poorer.
For Trump like for any leader seeking a sensible managed decline from world power, the ‘culture war’ isn’t a question of the government promoting ‘televangelists’ versus rock and roll; the question is one of visible traditions versus alien imports.
Trump seeks a united culture rather than an atomised culture in which right and left are forced to take sides. His ‘culture test’ used against would-be ISIS supporters whilst not entirely realistic is an effective rhetorical device to communicate an ideal of cultural unity against an unforgiving external world.
There is another significant way in which America’s imperial decline has shifted the debate in economics.
Many Republican politicians in the decades prior to Trump did not hide the fact they were pro big business – and in this context when one says big business, this is to say ultra-big globalist business. They made speeches about how the wealth of Goldman Sachs trickles down and how large car companies sending their factories overseas is somehow good for the economically austere service sector.
They made these statements unambiguously and with pride. They even went as far as to associate opposition to big business as some kind of socialism through the back door.
Trump, by contrast, has become the people’s billionaire, strange though this sounds. He has set himself against ultra-big multi-national businesses by articulating a message that ‘money is good but it has got to be tied to domestic manufacturing, otherwise good jobs will continue to disappear, to be replaced either by inferior service sector jobs or by nothing’.
He is also saying that government should play a role in regulating the economy, not in the name of Karl Marx, but in the name of common sense.
He has replaced a kind of semi-pornographic capitalist ideal with a free market with careful limits designed to benefit the greater good. He is an economic utilitarian. This too is reflected in his tax policy, which doesn’t promises massive breaks for the ultra-rich whilst conceding generous tax breaks to ordinary people.
All of this represents a new centrism born out of the pragmatism that comes with the realisation that the US is a state which can falter and fail like any other rather than a global hegemon, which can always be relied on to bail itself out.
Trump is a symptom of imperial decline, but insofar as he is able to articulate the necessary issues that are omnipresent during such a period he seems to be a man who at least rhetorically has risen to this considerable challenge.
From internal culture wars, to a battle to preserve what remains of a culture increasingly mocked on the world’s stage, to pragmatic utilitarian economics replacing cow boy capitalism, American has changed and Trump seems to understand this better than many.