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Game Over for the American Empire?
European Straits #71
Here’s one to lament the continuing fall of the American Empire. In a , I already explained how Donald Trump was marking the end of the “liberal tradition in America”. Now signs abound that support the idea of a sharp cultural and political turn in US (and world) history. Among those are the way immigrants are being treated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the adverse consequences of having a majority of Supreme Court justices now solidly anchored on the right, and older trends such as the spread of firearms and the opioid crisis spiraling out of control.
Trump supporters like to think that the US is more respected now with their new ‘strong’ leader. But respect really isn’t relevant here. It’s almost as if you witness your senile grandparent blindly acting out and doing harm to themselves and others. Respect no longer enters into the equation. Rather you remember what a good person they used to be and you lament their irreversible decline. This is the feeling that the Trump-led US inspires in me today.
To be fair, there are still two very different potential narratives when it comes to the fate of the US in the near and more distant futures. One side is best seen with the one-of-a-kind Umair Haque, whose angry and melancholic rants appear on Medium once or twice per week. I usually agree with every word as he plunges me into a dark pit of despair. Here are two recent ones that will give you a taste:
Why The World is Ripping Itself Apart—or how history is repeating itself, with stagnation producing authoritarianism, which in turn produces instability, which in turn produces aggression and hostility, which ultimately leads to chaos and war.
If you’re not crying at the end of that one, you can also read Why America is the World’s First Poor Rich Country, which explains how Americans are poor not because they don’t earn money, but because that money is sucked into overpriced resources such as housing and healthcare.
Another writer on the same side is Sarah Kendzior. I discovered her before Trump entered politics, reading her interesting pieces in Al-Jazeera US as well as her riveting book The View From Flyover Country. Now she’s a superstar, named by Foreign Policy as one of the “100 people you should be following on Twitter to make sense of global events”. Here are two of her early articles that explain how the US has long been on the wrong path, even before Trump made things even worse:
Why America’s impressive 5% unemployment rate feels like a lie for so many—or why average figures don’t matter for those trapped in jobless suburban areas with a house they can’t sell and a life they can’t imagine restarting elsewhere.
Expensive cities are killing creativity—or how the imbalance between ever poorer suburban areas with no jobs and ever richer urban centers with no affordable housing leads to the stagnation (which produces authoritarianism, then instability, etc., etc.).
But there’s also a more optimistic side, where two groups of authors have emerged on my personal map. One is James Fallows and Deborah Fallows, who just wrote Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America. The goal of their book is to reveal the resilience of American society and the early signs of a reaction against the current decline. Here are two articles to start with:
How America Is Putting Itself Back Together was published in 2016 in The Atlantic to explain their approach and provide an early overview of the people they met and the energy they spotted while flying from small town to small town (James Fallows is a licensed pilot).
The Reinvention of America is a more recent one, coinciding with the book’s publication. It details the reverse migration away from the coasts and how local governments all over the US are sticking to what’s best in America while the federal government is ripped apart.
Another author who’s exploring Louis Brandeis’s idea that local communities are “laboratories of democracy” is Peter Leyden. A former journalist at Wired, he’s now heading Reinvent, a media organization that, among other things, examines the reasons why we can hope for a better future:
In Why Trump’s Inauguration is Not the Beginning of an Era — but the End, Leyden made the case that Donald Trump will probably destroy America’s backward-looking conservatism before he destroys the rest of the country (I agreed at the time, but now I’m not so sure).
California Is the Future is a series of articles in which Leyden discusses how California is foreshadowing a different version of the US, correctly observing that the Golden State has always been 10 years ahead, whether for the Conservative Revolution or the rise of the tech industry.
I’m more on the pessimistic side, rather convinced that the US is the new 19th-century Germany: they have it all but they’re squandering it, driven by destructive forces that were decades in the making (as explained by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson in their landmark book American Amnesia).
And if the US is the new Germany, will they bring the entire world to the verge of a new World War? Fortunately, I don’t think so. Just like the US was not directly exposed to what was going on in Europe in the early 20th century, it doesn’t really have the capacity today to lead the rest of the world into a global conflict. Germany had to attack its neighbors, Poland, Hungary, France, as it set out on its destructive grand design. The US, on the other hand, can be left off in their own corner to self-destruct.
That assumes that non-American leaders will do what it takes to break free from a now-toxic country. China is certainly doing just that, which is Martin Jacques’s thesis in When China Rules the World. As for Europe, a lot is resting on Macron’s shoulders—as well as on all the players that are trying to integrate a more tech-driven European economy from the bottom up (including, obviously, ).
Last week at our office in Paris I hosted a fireside chat with renowned economist and veteran venture capitalist William H. Janeway (picture here). Bill concluded with a great J.M. Keynes quote that gives all of us here hope, so long as we have the patience and determination to work hard for 20-30 years (which we do): “The power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas”. What do you think?
Warm regards (from Paris, France),