Imperial Decline


“Keying Up” – The Court Jester, oil on canvas, by William Merritt Chase, 1875. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Tom Engelhardt is an uncommonly keen observer of the imperial globe. His blog,, points critically at what mainstream media ignore or condone. The blog functions as an “antidote” to how the news typically is reported. He’s been at it since the beginning of the global war on terror. Before that, he wrote insightfully on US war culture in The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (Basic Books, 1995). Now he sees signs of the beginning of the end of US empire.

Engelhardt sees the decline of American imperial power reflected in the words of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign theme: “Make America Great Again!” The word “again” is revealing. Rhetoric makes and reflects political culture.

In the 1950s, US wealth and power were “too self-evident for presidents to cite, hail, or praise.” Their political vocabulary was devoid of superlatives such as “greatest,” “exceptional,” and “indispensible.” After Vietnam, though, things went the way of Rambo.

Ronald Reagan made a re-election claim that “It’s morning again in America.” There again is that word “again.” It was an early sign of lost confidence and the corresponding need to boast.   Time to muscle-up the military and defeat the Soviet Union’s evil empire.

Bill Clinton and his Secretary of State liked to boast that the US is the one indispensible nation. Barack Obama frequently expresses his belief in American exceptionalism. Republicans, who usually reject whatever Obama endorses, also like to speak pridefully of American exceptionalism. It’s today’s rhetorical commonplace.

When you have to claim something so blatantly, so often, so emphatically, Engelhardt observes, “you no longer have it.” What’s no longer “too obvious to say” meets his definition of decline. Trump not only says it, adding the telltale word “again,” but also emphasizes it with an exclamation point. As such, he is the “harbinger” of a new American century in which the US no longer will be the greatest or even exceptional nation. It is at least ironic, if not bizarre, thanks to Donald Trump, that 2016 marks “the official year the U.S. first went public as a declinist power.”

How to cope with imperial decline is the question of the day. So far the answer has been to lash out loudly and menacingly. The country and its leaders are in a collective state of denial that feeds the global war on terror.

Jennifer Daskal, in a recent New York Times opinion piece, argues that President Obama should act in his last year in office to end the “forever war” by seeking an alternative to the now normalized expansive reading of the narrower 2001 Congressional authorization “to use force against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, Al Qaeda, and those that harbored them, the Taliban.” She warns against the “hazards of unbounded war” by future administrations using this expansive interpretation of authority as they see fit, referencing Ted Cruz’s suggestion to “carpet bomb” ISIS. She might have added Donald Trump’s statement that he would kill the families of terrorists in order to defeat ISIS.

Without an open-ended war on terror, however, the US would need to find a substitute enemy (as it did after the demise of the Soviet Union) or, alternatively, acknowledge imperial overreach as a first step toward dismantling war culture.

Trump—the Donald—plays the clown by pointing out America’s decline, but instead of laughing at his jester antics in recognition of our national arrogance, we take him seriously as a candidate for the presidency.


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