What is at stake in the 2020 American election? Very little, I am afraid. Our presidential candidates nowadays portray themselves as benign elective dictators who will save the country, and even the entire planet, unilaterally via executive order. But those who actually win the White House are hemmed in by other principalities and powers, which are able to block drastic departures from the status quo.
November will witness the fourth presidential election to be held under the latest incarnation of the American state. In my book The Next American Nation in 1995, I predicted that at some point early in the 21st century, the Third Republic of the United States—assembled during the New Deal and World War II and held together to some large extent by the real and imagined exigencies of the Cold War—would finally collapse and be replaced by a Fourth Republic of the United States, just as the Third Republic had replaced the Second Republic of Lincoln—which was built during and after the Civil War from the burning ruins of Washington’s First Republic. Meanwhile, Americans would pretend we were still living under the Constitution of 1787 as amended, just as we had done after previous unofficial revolutions.
I was correct that a new American regime would arise following crises in the early 21st century, but I was mistaken to assume that it would be followed by another republic. The term Principate, used for the early era of the Caesars, when features of Roman republican government still limited the reach and ambition of wannabe dictators, seems apt. Welcome to the First Principate of the United States.
Barack Obama and Donald Trump represent different kinds of Caesarism, to be sure. The editors of the “Against Trump” issue of National Review wrote of Trump: “He and Bernie Sanders have shared more than funky outer-borough accents.” Indeed. Trump is an Outer Borough Caesar, channeling resentment against the downtown banking and law establishments and other members of “the elite.” So is Bernie Sanders, with his “funky” Brooklyn accent and his appeal to working-class voters of all races, in addition to the new college-educated base of the Democrats.
In our new American Principate, oligarchs have Caesars of their own, just like the common people. Obama was a Downtown Caesar; Buttigieg and Bloomberg may fit the role as well. Outer Borough Caesars channel mass anger against the establishment; in contrast, the people’s democratic revolution promised by Downtown Caesars is just a slight modification of the existing system, like the latest Apple iPhone. Downtown Caesar is to Outer Borough Caesar what the Monkees were to the Beatles.
So how did we get here? The Third American Republic collapsed around 2008 amid failed foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. American primary voters in both parties rejected political dynasts associated with the disasters of the late Third Republic, like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. Instead, they turned to charismatic Caesars, figures with little or no federal government experience who make exorbitant promises of national salvation and renewal that they are entirely unable to keep.
Barack Obama, the first American to try out for the role of Caesar, was a first-term senator whose youth and African-American identity inspired a cult of personality with Che-style derivative graphics that helped him defeat Hillary Clinton to win the 2008 Democratic nomination and then take the presidency. Some compared him to a rock star; Obama compared himself to a Rorschach test. In his first campaign, he ran as the candidate of Purple America; a semimagical, messianic rationalist who would transcend partisan divisions, dissolve contradictions between labor and capital, and inaugurate a new age of American and global renovation. In his address upon winning the Democratic nomination on June 3, 2008, Obama predicted that posterity would recognize that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
In temperament and style, Donald Trump, the second Caesar of the American Principate, could not be more different from Barack Obama. He is Triumph the Insult Comic Dog to Obama’s Mr. Spock. Trump had never served in any elective office before he leveraged his celebrity status as a reality television star into a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. Earlier, at the turn of the century, he had tried and failed to capture Ross Perot’s Reform Party along with his friend, TV wrestler Jesse Ventura, who went on to become governor of Minnesota. “Make America Great Again” was the right-wing populist version of Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In” and “Yes We Can.”
Yet upon gaining office, both celebrity-presidents discovered that the Caesarian stylings and ambitions that swept them to power were severely circumscribed in practice by the other three (not two) branches of government in the Principate—Congress, the courts, and the national security bureaucratic complex, which is otherwise known as the “Deep State.”
In October 2010, pressed to carry out immigration reforms by executive order, Obama said: “I am not king. I can’t do these things just by myself.” But then in 2012, Obama used his alleged executive authority to implement a number of reforms that Congress had considered and rejected, including the provision of work permits and access to government benefits for the children of illegal immigrants. After the Obama administration in 2014 invoked executive power to help their parents, the Supreme Court let stand a nationwide injunction issued by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which noted that prosecutorial discretion does not allow the president to rewrite laws.
Trump has been similarly thwarted. Between 2017 and 2019, when the GOP controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, the Republican congressional leadership spurned Trump’s campaign promises about infrastructure and refused to allocate a penny to the construction of his iconic border wall. Instead, Republicans in Congress passed (and Trump signed) a tax cut benefiting corporations and the rich that reflected the mentality of legacy Bushism. Even in the Principate, the senatorial class still has some clout.
Presidents have more constitutional and legal discretion in foreign policy. But even here they are checked by the unofficial fourth branch of government—the bipartisan military and civilian national security establishment that Obama adviser Ben Rhodes derided as “the Blob.” The working theory of the Blob is that U.S. foreign policy should reflect the consensus of career military, diplomatic, and intelligence officials; presidents should defer to their professional judgment and reign but not rule.
As president, Obama stood up to the Blob only once, when, ignoring pressure from the hawks in his administration, including his secretary of state and secretary of defense, he refused to authorize missile strikes against Bashar Assad in Syria. Later, however, he went along with the ill-conceived Blob-supported NATO war to depose Moammar Gadhafi, which smashed Libya into anarchy.
Trump, meanwhile, has also fought against the aggressive militarism of his own appointees, both military and civilian. He has refused to start any new wars to go along with the forever wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen bequeathed to him by Bush and Obama. To appear tough, the former TV showman has used the occasional theatrical act of violence, like the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. But this has not spared him from being beset on all sides by disgruntled members of the security establishment, and its amplifiers and conduits, who use convenient new digital platforms to wage information warfare against people and policies they don’t like. In turn, the stories they leak to pet reporters often become predicates for legislative and legal action that aims to tie the executive’s hands and even criminalize disagreement with their goals.
Under the new American Principate that is being constructed amid the rotting wreckage of the Third American Republic of 1932-2008, what Dwight Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex” has very clearly emerged as an independent, extraconstitutional fourth branch of government with goals and a culture of its own. Future historians are likely to interpret the impeachment and trial of Trump in part as an attempted coup by hawkish national security career officials, who by means of leaking to the press and collaborating with the House Democrats, sought to remove a president whom they consider insufficiently belligerent toward post-Soviet Rump Russia and other foreign adversaries.
If a Democrat were to win the White House in 2020, the contrast between the policies that our system of government is likely to produce and what many Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination have promised—abolish most or all enforcement of immigration laws! Outlaw oil and gas and nuclear energy! Socialize the entire American health insurance industry!—would be even more extreme than the gap between the messianic campaign promises of Obama and Trump and their meager accomplishments.
The First American Principate is still in its infancy, and nobody can predict how it will evolve. It could last for decades, or for generations. But what seems clear right now is that the balance of power among the new plebiscitary presidency, Congress, the courts, and the national security establishment is unstable. The First Principate at some point will give way to something else. It may turn out we are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—Diocletian.
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Michael Lind is a columnist at Tablet and a fellow at New America. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.