Alexei Bayer: How the Republic ends
In early 1998 Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-1998) wrote one of his last works, a political pamphlet Russia Crumbles. In August of that year, Russia suffered a severe financial crisis, which became a key reason for the rise of Vladimir Putin exactly a year later. Putin crushed the green shoots of democracy and civil society in Russia, establishing a fascist kleptocracy with revanchist imperial ambitions. Solzhenitsyn held rightwing obscurantist, statist and imperialist views, and he blotted his reputation at the end of his life by supporting Putin.
While living in exile in America, Solzhenitsyn was also harshly critical of the West, its liberalism, inclusiveness, pluralism, embrace of secularism and rejection of nationalism. Now democracy in America is under assault — from precisely the same fascist forces that Solzhenitsyn so admired.
Tidy someone could easily write a pamphlet titled America Crumbles. In the most advanced nation in the world the COVID-19 pandemic is raging out of control, thanks to the disastrous failures of its Federal government. The country with by far the largest number of Nobel Prize winners is rejecting science. Federal troops in combat gear assault peaceful protesters with chemical weapons.
The economy is in a freefall, unemployment is at Depression levels, the dollar is being degraded by unchecked printing and debt at all levels is catastrophic. Meanwhile, the super-rich, the ones who should have the greatest stake in preserving the economic system, are finishing it off by profiting from the national calamity.
The U.S. president has lied more than 20,000 times, he is corrupt, incompetent, likely mentally ill and clearly in a subservient relationship with Putin. Yet, the system of checks and balances no longer functions, as the Republicans are venal and cowardly and the Democrats are incompetent and cowardly. Everyone in the position of power in the government is hopelessly old and bereft of ideas.
There is a sense in the air that the Republic is living its last days. We may not have an election in November, as Donald Trump has already proposed. Even if it does take place, Trump will be certain to cast doubt on the result if he loses — and has warned that he’ll tie up the country for years with court challenges.
It may be a good time to give some thought to how the Republic will die and what will replace it.
Over the past two decades — and especially over the past four years — so many American institutions have become corrupted or discredited. Trump has turned the presidency into a horror show buffoonery, but the list of institutions that have lost their moral authority includes — but is not limited to — the legislative and judicial branches, the press, the business community, the police, the FBI, the intelligence community, the church, universities, expertise, science and medicine.
The only institution that Americans still respect, and by a very wide margin, is the military. According to Gallup, nearly three quarters of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in their armed forces.
Yet, it is probably the most corrupt institution of all, and also one that will probably play the greatest part in the collapse of the Republic and the emergence of a New America.
One of the oldest private organizations in America is the Society of the Cincinnati. It is not a very popular concept today, since it is all-male, overwhelmingly, if not entirely, white and hereditary, open exclusively to descendants of the officers of the Continental Army.
There is, however, another aspect that makes it not very up-to-date: it is named after Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the prototype of a citizen-soldier. Back in the 6th century BC, he left his farm, protected the Republic and returned the power to the Senate once the emergency was over.
This is how America’s enlightened Founders envisioned the new country’s armed forces — a gun behind every kitchen door, men and citizen soldiers ready to mobilize and share the burdens of defending the country, but returning to peaceful pursuits in normal times. This is, incidentally, the spirit of the Second Amendment which has been so badly perverted in the 21st century America.
The world has changed over the past two and a half centuries and so did America’s role in the world. For its own security the country has felt compelled to fight major foreign wars and to maintain a large standing army to deter its enemies and to protect its allies.
However, the reliance on the draft during the conflict in Vietnam turned into a political disaster at home. Not limited to men who wanted to serve or were poor or the wrong color, the draft affected the privileged, stoking a massive antiwar movement in the late 1960s and the early 1970s.
The draft was then abolished and the Pentagon has created a volunteer or professional military. In other words, a mercenary force, albeit bedecked in patriotic rhetoric.
There are undeniable benefits to having a professional military — both for those who enlist and for the armed services. Also, drafting a scientist or a musician to spend a year or two of their productive life sitting in the trenches is not necessarily a good idea.
But there are flaws, too — and in America’s case they have been interconnected, one flaw reinforcing the other.
After 9/11 there has been a widespread desire for revenge against Al-Qaeda but the form it would take was left to the government. Since the military was not drawn from society, society didn’t debate whether the attack required a limited police action and allowed the Bush Administration to unleash an all-out war.
Likewise, the unnecessary war in Iraq was blundered into without much objection from the public which was not expected to make any meaningful sacrifices in blood or treasure.
Since then the two wars have become the longest in American history, as well as the most futile. Both have long been extremely unpopular. Yet, since the boys and girls killed and maimed there had been there because they volunteered, there have been virtually no protests. All there has been were cloying tributes to wounded warriors at professional sporting events — the cheapest and sickest form of jingoism imaginable.
Another aspect of a mercenary army is the creation of a warrior class that is both separated from society and resentful of it. Like German World War I veterans, they are remarkably susceptible to fake patriotic rhetoric and talk of the Fifth Column, and to being sicked on the liberal elites.
The Deplorables in the economically depressed South are the readiest suppliers of cannon fodder to the Pentagon. They are also the backbone of Trump’s electoral support. And ex-service people now make up the core of the police and the Federal thugs lustfully attacking peaceful protesters on Lafayette Square in Washington and on the streets of Portland.
They are Trump’s people and he has signaled to them that he is there for them — e.g., pardoning service members accused of war crimes by the US military.
This pits the Trumpist lower-ranked portion of the military against their chain of command, which clings to the traditional notions of a strictly apolitical military. Just as the warrior class can be easily turned on the “domestic enemy”, meaning the liberal elites, so they can be turned on their own officers.
Note that a high proportion of active duty and ex-military personnel, as well as their families, voted for Trump in 2016 even after he attacked John McCain for being taken prisoner and a Gold Star family of a fallen hero because they were born in Pakistan.
America stands on the brink of unprecedented events that will test its commitment to democracy and the Constitution. For all the sanctimonious talk by the top brass about the military being apolitical, it will not be able to stay out of politics. Not interfering when the Constitution, to which they have sworn allegiance, is under attack is in itself a political act.
The bureaucratized American generals may not be equipped to live up to their duty. We have seen how the finest of them — Michael Flynn, John Kelly, James Mattis, H.R.McMaster — have shown themselves craven or corrupt when serving Trump. We have seen how the Pentagon soiled their collective camouflage underwear by refusing to protect an American hero, Ukrainian-born Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman. They will not be able or willing to assert command over their men when the time comes and the role the Army will play in future events in the U.S. is unlikely to be honorable.
There are important passages in Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire about the mercenary army creating and dismissing Emperors. We may need to revisit them.