Friday, November 04, 2016

Alas, Babylon

America is doomed.

We at the Egg know as well as anybody that this is an ancient refrain, as old as the Republic or even older.  From the very beginning of our national experiment, we Americans have worried that we were past our prime.  From the later 1600s, the "jeremiad," a lament that the present generation did not live up to the piety and goodness of its predecessors, was a distinctive style of New England sermon.

Oswald Spengler's 1918 Decline of the West was translated into English in the late 1920s, and set off a new explosion of American self-doubt.  John Lardas, in a study of Beat spirituality called The Bob Apocalypse, briefly traces Spengler's influence, and the development of what Alfred Kazin called "an aristocratic pessimism" among intellectuals.  Ezra Pound read Spengler, and famously denounced Western civilization as "an old bitch gone at the teeth."  A generation later, Kerouac and Ginsberg read him, and came to similar conclusions.

In 1987, British historian Paul Kennedy made a neo-Spenglerian argument in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, predicting that the United States would soon go the way of the British Empire. He garnered a great deal of attention (and criticism).

And of course, Donald Trump has spent much of the past two years inviting his followers to "make America great again," a proposition sensible only if we accept that America has declined from its former greatness.

So we know that this is old news.  America has been in decline, at least rhetorically, since a century before the Revolution.  America was in decline, rhetorically, when it won its freedom from Britain; in decline when it set free its slaves; in decline when it swung the course to of two world wars; in decline when it rebuilt Europe and Japan; in decline when it stared down the Soviets.

But this time it's serious.

Not because our gridlocked Congress or hobbled Supreme Court, nor of Trump and Clinton, dismal candidates as they may both be, but rather because of the forces at work around them.

The unembarrassed, all-but-overt efforts of Putin's Russia to influence the election are one problem. We do not doubt that Russia has tried to influence our elections in the past, but its role has always been shadowy, secretive, easily dismissed.  Now, between the appearances of ranking Trump advisor Michael Flynn on RT (the modern equivalent of Pravda), the Russian Bears both Fancy and Cozy who have been hacking Democratic data and providing it to Wikileaks, and the mysterious servers in Trump Tower and Moscow's Alfa Bank, the Russians are barely bothering to maintain the pretense that they are not pulling dirty tricks on behalf of their favored candidate.

Russia is, in other words, treating America much as America is accustomed to treating other nations.  And this, rather than Trump's racism, sexism, boorishness or difficulty with impulse control, is the sign of a real problem.  Another nation's security apparatus is treating us the way we treat the second- and third-rate powers of the world, a clear suggestion that we have descended to those ranks.

A second problem is the FBI. In the past week or so, it has begun to appear that director James Comey's inflammatory letter to Congress about Clinton-related emails found on a porn addict's computer was not in itself an aggression, so much as a bumbling effort to pre-empt leaks from a militantly anti-Clinton faction of the Bureau's New York field field office.  It has failed, since those leaks (and a curiously-timed reminder of the Marc Rich fiasco) continue.

But Comey's failure is not merely a matter of bumbled bureaucratic infighting.  It is a failure to control rogue elements with America's premier law-enforcement agency, and to prevent them from meddling in the outcome of an election.

Think about that.  For years, as we have waged an unsuccessful war against Central Asian jihadists, we have heard that Pakistan is an unreliable partner because, whatever good intentions its elected officials may have, they cannot control the schemers in the intelligence service.  And now our FBI, for all the professionalism it has reclaimed since the bad old Hoover years, seems little better than Pakistan's ISI. Both appear to be controlled by partisans who place their own ideology above the chain of command, or even the law.

In other words, the Russians are treating us like a third-rate power because in some ways we have become a third-rate power.  One by one, the central institutions of our government are failing.  Should this election result in another Bush v. Gore, our crippled Supreme Court will be unable to decide it.  A difficult Election Day outcome is made more likely both by one candidate's declared doubt about the legitimacy of the electoral system, and by the partisan meddling of our most respected security service.

Most terrifying of all is the prospect of where this sort of dysfunction leads in a truly third-rate power.

A relatively stable second-rate nation, such as Italy, can withstand the messiness of, say, a Berlusconi administration.  It comes through the experience having lost much of its international stature and its economic security, but with most of its civic institutions intact.  But a less stable nation, one teetering into third-raterdom, will often throw all its eggs into a single basket, and rely for stability on a single trusted institution:  the military.

In Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, and Argentina -- as well as many other countries, to greater or lesser degrees -- the military has long been the authority of final appeal, vested both by its own self-esteem and by the esteem, however grudging, of the people with the maintenance of the state in times of extreme distress. That is to say that when the government simply can't handle its tasks, the military steps in.

How long do you think, dear reader, before the American military does likewise?  At a certain point, some generals will surely see it as their duty to to "protect" us both from enemies without (Russia, China, even ISIS) and from enemies within (political parties that prize ideological purity above actual function).  It will be hard for them to maneuver so vast and diverse an organism as the US military, so perhaps they will find a workaround.  Could they do it with just the Army?  Or just the infantry?  Surely they will find political cover from handful of desperate elected leaders.  They could even install a nominal civilian as president, "elected" in voting supervised by soldiers because the state systems have proven untrustworthy.  That pitiful figurehead might even be allowed to name a cabinet, just for old times' sake, while the generals make the trains run on time.

It is a terrifying proposition, and one that seems laughably improbable.  But so, a year or two ago, was the current state of affairs.  And if some or even any of the modern-day jeremiads are on target -- if we really are in the sort of imperial decline our intellectuals have so long prophesied and which now our most strident anti-intellectuals declare to be realized -- then a military  coup is not merely the next logical step, it is all but inevitable.

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