“All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.”
-President Roslin, Battlestar Galactica
If there had been any doubt about the notion that the collapse of the American Empire was no longer ahead of us, but something that we’re now experiencing in real time, the first presidential debate of 2020 should have settled the question once and for all. If candidates for a nation’s highest office in some way reflect the zeitgeist of the society, then we are a nation torn between the dying echo of a weak, senile neoliberalism, and a uniquely American spin on fascism in the form of a blustering game show host. Whatever the outcome, no great nation that’s belched up these two men as the only choices in a country of 330 million people, can be said to be truly great, much less qualified to take a leadership role in the world.
The international community had already figured that out long before Donald Trump and Joe Biden finally faced each other on a debate stage, as reflected in the kinds of economic policy moves central banks and developing countries have been making of late. Stories about the finer points of global finance aren’t sexy enough to make headlines, but those policy shifts have greater implications for our future than most of the things that do: Russia and China have begun conducting bilateral transactions in their own currencies, at the expense of the dollar, global reserve managers last year cut dollar holdings to their lowest levels since the 1990’s, and African nations today are more likely to seek out economic development deals with China than with the US. The jockeying for position in a post-American world has already begun. The only ones who haven’t noticed are Americans, who have increasingly come to resemble a nation of Norma Desmonds, waiting for their close up without realizing that our once adoring fans have moved on to other things.
All that’s left to fascinate now is the freak show. We continue to enjoy good ratings from a worldwide audience that is taking in our Series Finale with a mix of schadenfreude, sadness, and shocked disbelief. We’ve never had a fully televised imperial collapse before, and certainly never one with such bizarre aesthetics. America has always had a bone-deep weirdness at its core, but that quality has been cranked up considerably as the contradictions in our system finally come crashing down in one big, crazy, explosion of dystopian elements straight out of a Phillip K. Dick fever dream: Proud Boys, Robin DeAngelo, Joe Exotic, WAP, SJW’s, Jeffrey Epstein, Kanye, the Lincoln Project, and an old Jewish socialist screaming fire in the midst of the theater of it all, like a ghost from a time when the public good wasn’t entirely beside the point of our government. It somehow feels like a fitting send off for the nation that produced both jazz and Cheese Whiz. It’s like a dark jam session with all the major elements of the American id, grabbing an instrument and contributing a line.
The finger-pointing has already begun, even as we deny what’s actually happening to us by calling our deepening balkanization as a people, social progress. Black vs. white, gay vs. straight, trans, vs. cis, progressive vs. liberal, conservative vs. everyone else, and on and on and on into an infinity of categories, and sub-categories, each more granular than the last. A country as lacking in a sense of irony as ours, simply isn’t equipped to contemplate the idea that an obsession with personal identity, necessarily comes at the expense of national unity and is itself a symptom of cultural decline that has arisen in the final days of all the empires that preceded us. Yes, all of this has happened before and, in all likelihood, all of this will happen again in another place and time to another people, although probably not with quite as much entertainment value as we’re bringing to the occasion. Give the devil his due, we know how to put on a show, and we’re pulling out all the stops for this final act of the Great American Implosion Vaudeville.
Like our immediate predecessor, Great Britain, will we seize the opportunity presented by our impending release from the burdens of empire to create a more egalitarian society with a more progressive tax system which funds public services like universal health care and higher education? Maybe. But it’s just as likely we’ll have a protracted low-grade civil war ending in the final triumph of a fascist “America First” regime. The right-wingers have the guns and the resolve. Snarky memes and Aaron Sorkin won’t be much of a match against an army of assault rifle toting fanatics.
If you’re looking to put together a bug-out bag full of antibiotics and cash in light of all this, consider growing your nest egg by investing in mail order bride start-ups; not for people who want to bring Ukranian women to America, but for American women trying to get into Canada. That, and picking through the detritus of empire for roadside diner artifacts, Elvis night-lights, and Disney memorabilia for sale on ebay to the rising Chinese middle-class are probably your best options now.
On the bright side, the six-volume set about these years that’s sure to be produced by a future Gibbon, is going to be a lot more interesting than the Roman version. And how many among all the long generations of humans who have lived and died on the planet have ever gotten a front-row seat to the precise moment when an empire crumbled? As historical experiences go, that’s among the rarest of delicacies. Its only ever happened on this scale twice before, and only once without a successor state to ensure a relatively smooth passing of the torch. Of course, that lack of a successor caused a millennium of poverty and ignorance we now refer to as “the dark ages,” but the planet could probably use the breather right about now.
Progressives are perhaps the only people in America who aren’t surprised by any of this, and for whom the debate didn’t play as a revelation. We’ve seen this coming for a long time. It’s the reason we’re progressives. We’ve been doing a very loud Casandra bit since 2016, trying to warn anyone who would listen that this was where we were headed. Having a vested interest in the status quo, not enough of the people with the power to change course listened.
In the aftermath, some of us will stick around to try to help pick up the pieces. Many of us will go into exile rather than wait around for the federal forces to start showing up on our streets. A few will try to keep their heads down and ride it out. If nothing else, when that future history is written, we’ll be among the only actors to come off relatively well. Not quite the win we were hoping for, but at least we’ll be able to look our grandkids in the eye over a long-expired can of peaches, and account for ourselves in these times without shame.
If you own a pussy hat, on the other hand, you might want to burn it now and delete all the photos. There’s just no way you’re going to be able to explain that in a world without bees.
For more on the debate and the collapse of the American Empire, listen to our latest podcast by clicking the player below:
Photo: Joe Mabel (CC 3.0)