Devon Chenelle | University of Notre Dame
As I settled into bed, I refreshed the front page of reddit one last time, and was greeted by the rarest of events - something hilarious at the top of my reddit homepage. Accompanied by generic acclamation of HIGH ENERGY or something similar was a link to the President’s latest tweet (yes I’m subscribed to /r/thedonald, sue me. I would hardly be a good source of information on the Trump zeitgeist without it and, regardless, I find that it and /r/latestagecapitalism are by far the site’s two funniest subreddits). Taking full advantage of the new 280 character limit, Trump (or whomever, who knows) wrote “why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’ Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend - and maybe someday that will happen.” In addition to constituting a delightful example of, my god, our President is literally Donald Trump right now, within the tweet there’s a lot to unpack - beyond the implicit indication that Trump eventually aspires to rapprochement with the Kim regime, it’s also a reminder that Donald Trump is crazy old (it’s seriously stunning that no one ever mentions he is literally ever the oldest president ever elected, which is, if nothing else, an impressive testament to Trump’s ability to set the frame of the conversation), and that international diplomacy is now conducted via Twitter.
After chuckling at the tweet’s demonstration of our present political situation’s absurdity, I scrolled down to check the responses, enjoying as always the self-important vitriol some people love shooting back at Trump. A woman wrote “People around the world know the resistance against Trump is growing. No need to apologise [s!] for that sexual predator, his day of impeachment is coming!!!” Several things about this tweet, particularly its wording, caught my eye. “People around the world know,” struck me as odd, as “need to know” seemed more proper, for the earlier phrase excites questions about how this information about the resistance diffused across the globe, and how it became so important to non-Americans. Why this appeal, furthermore, to “people around the world”? Isn’t Trump only required to answer to Americans, a notoriously self-important and self-centered people at the best of times? Why would an American ever make reference to international opinion when dealing with domestic politics?
All of these questions demanded further investigation, so with a click, I went to check. Upon surveying the profile of the individual responsible for the tweet, I saw that the tweet came from England, and let out a chuckle. If that angry tweet’s author only knew that the very fact that they are from England and hate Trump with such passion tells them everything you need to know about the rise of Trump. No other country has foreign people so emotionally invested in the nature of its leaders. However, this is not some strange fit of irrationality, but rather an eminently reasonable response to the reality: billions and billions across the world are subject to the power of the American empire, and are all invested in America’s rule and rulership. Foreigners furious at Trump must realize that it is this same unfathomable power of the American empire that created the conditions for Trump’s rise.
America thinks of itself as a republic, but conducts itself like an empire. It is this fundamental discord that, at root, produced the conditions for the Trump Presidency, and it was Trump’s adroit apprehension and exploitation of these tensions that led him to seize the Oval Office. The old republican (small r!) institutions and safeguards that should have prevented the rise of a figure like Trump are all obsolete or ineffective. How could they not be, when we have discarded the young republic’s mores in almost everything; it’s hard to guess whether our founders would have found more offputting our sprawling global network of fortresses manned by a professional army, or the subjugation of the legislative and judicial branches to the ever-more extensive powers of the Executive and its leviathan bureaucracy. You can’t radically change almost everything about the nature of a country and expect the parts of the old system you still want to keep around - e.g. our presidential electoral process - to function like they used to. Indeed, Trump’s demolishment of the Establishment should not be too shocking, for in truth there was little to none of the genuine article remaining, but rather only grasping members of the meritocracy mimicking what they thought to be the proper outward expressions, but never the correct inward comportment, of establishment elites. Trump’s genius was that he recognized the situation and revealed the establishment for the house of cards it was.
Besides clearing the way for a populist demagogue by gutting the vitality from our republican institutions, American imperialism also enabled and encouraged Trump’s mercantilist and protectionist economic doctrine. It was America’s global ambitions that led to the American economy’s irreversibly and intensively integrated relationship with the international economy it largely controls, and this also abetted Trump’s rise, because American commoners have been marginalized by these centralizing and globalizing processes just as Roman plebeians were thousands of years before.
While writing this article, I went back to check Trump’s twitter feed for more material. I was not disappointed. “After my tour of Asia, all Countries dealing with us on TRADE know that the rules have changed. The United States has to be treated fairly and in a reciprocal fashion. The massive TRADE deficits must go down quickly!” tweeted the leader of the free world, showing Trump’s awareness of the trends that produced his presidency. Trump understands that the empire’s relationship with its periphery provides a vital source of domestic legitimacy, as the common masses are filled with pride by their executive’s global supremacy, forcing foreign princes to kowtow. He also realizes, unlike prior presidents, that our network of allies and vassals is also a fruitful source of wealth for America, which can exploit massive power imbalances to demand favorable re-workings of economic relationships with dependent and vulnerable allies, allowing him to fill supporters’ pockets with foreign riches.
Perhaps the most profound way in which the American empire prepared the way for President Trump is not legally or economically, but emotionally. The ever-increasing imperial character of America demands, and thus produces, a different sort of leader and governing style than the types favorable for a republican form of government. Trump’s regime is characterized, more than any presidential administration preceding his, by distinctly imperial attributes. Most notably, these include military figures’ prominence within his government, a cult of personality centered around the leader, most powerfully exhibited in the shockingly fascistic victory rallies, and Trump’s behavior as a charismatic and frequently extralegal strongman committed to his interpretation of the popular will. To any fans of political history, these symptoms will absolutely reek of Caesarism, and it's not an entirely innacurate charge - Trump certainly checks a lot of the boxes. However, it's only possible to play caesar when we have an empire.
The people, contrary to popular belief, are not stupid, and on some level, they understand that we have an empire, and with empire come spoils. The viability of their old ways of life and the importance of their regions has been undermined by this imperial scheme, and thus it makes all the sense in the world that, when they look for a presidential candidate, they don’t want someone who will embody the old ideals of republican virtue - not least because anti-Trump politicians are merely masquerading as honest republicans when they are actually just trying to use the empire for different purposes - but instead a figure who will bring the wealth and prosperity of the empire to them. A figure like Washington or Lincoln would be woefully out of place in our modern politics. Temperance, erudition, honesty, respectfulness, and indeed all the old republican virtues are now unfashionable because they are no longer politically pragmatic. More popular, I suspect would be an Augustan, Trajanic, or even Bonapartist candidate. Now in vogue are the imperial virtues: opulence, largesse, charisma, and guile, among many others. Trump understands this, and it’s why he won. Can anyone doubt future politicians will heed his lesson, and will even further radicalize it?
With this careful view of the tweet, our Englishwoman’s twitter anger makes sense - of course you get worked up over the behavior of the American president when his caprice can be fundamentally important to your own country’s welfare - and also helps make sense of Trump’s rise. Both are explained in large part by the nation’s current tension between republican and imperial norms, a dissonance that has already yielded the obsolescence of old republican forms, the commercial effects of our nation’s imperial adventures, and our empire’s modifying effects on the desirable characteristics of a leader and government.