The Slow Collapse of Imperial Republics

Disputes over Trump's election are just the latest episodes in the slow erosion of trust in the legitimacy of American institutions.

Trump in Iowa after announcing his presidential bid. Iowa Public Radio Images - John Pemble / Flickr

I want to step back — way back — from the release of a declassified intelligence report on Russian interference in the election in order to point out the larger political significance of this moment.

Regardless of the truth value of the report, the nation’s intelligence agencies (the report is based on assessments by the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI) are strongly suggesting that the person who is about to walk into the White House got there with the help of a foreign power. The significance of this move by the nation’s security establishment against an incoming president, as I’ve been suggesting for some time, has not been quite appreciated. That the nation’s security agencies could go public with this kind of accusation, or allow their accusation to go public, is unprecedented. The United States traditionally does this kind of thing, covertly, to other countries: that is the prerogative of an imperial power. Now it claims, overtly, that this kind of thing was done to it. It’s extraordinary, when you think about it: not simply that it happened (if it did) but that an imperial power would admit that it happened. That’s the real shocker.

But we need to read the story against a larger backdrop of the slow delegitimation of American national institutions since the end of the Cold War.

It began, I would argue, with the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, even though it seemed clear to most people he committed perjury before the Senate. It continued with the gratuitous impeachment of Bill Clinton, the elevation of George W. Bush to the White House by a Supreme Court deploying the most specious reasoning, a war in Iraq built on flagrant lies, the normalization of the filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and now the ascension of Trump, despite not winning the popular vote — and supposedly with the help of the Russians.

If people could step outside their partisan selves for one minute, I’d ask you to consider the following fact as yet another sign of late imperial disjunction: For the last eight years, we’ve had a president who half the country thinks is Muslim, Kenyan-born. For the next four, maybe eight, years, we will have a president who half the country thinks is the Manchurian Candidate, Russian-born. I can’t think of a greater symptom of the weird fever dream that is the American empire, whereby the most powerful state on earth imagines, over a twelve to sixteen year period, that its elected leaders hail from the far reaches of its various antagonisms.

What ties these events together is either that they cast serious doubt on the democratic legitimacy of American institutions or that they drag those institutions into the delegitimating mud of the most sordid scandals.

The simple truth is that the United States could barely have weathered one of these events during the Cold War, let alone a long succession of them. That is why civil rights activists were able, finally, to bring an end to Jim Crow when they did — the international embarrassment was too great — and why the failures in Vietnam provoked such a national crisis.

What we’re now seeing is not a cataclysmic crisis — I suspect one day we’ll look back on the language of “legitimation crisis” as itself the product of the Cold War — but a more familiar phenomenon from the annals of history: the slow but steady collapse — the real norm erosion — that you tend to see in the later stages of imperial republics. A collapse that can take decades, if not longer, to unfold.