“With Canada?” —Philip Roth, The Plot Against America
Until the advent of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, no large and glorious empire in all of history had ever decided of its own volition to dismantle itself. Gorbachev decided to do it, anyway. He made the decision all by himself, too, supported by only two loyal comrades in the politburo, both of whom he had appointed. It was extraordinary. It was inconceivable. It happened. And now we have to wonder if something equivalent isn’t happening to our own large and glorious not-really-an-empire, the anti-Soviet constellation of American-led democracies, aka the Atlantic alliance and its related treaties and planetary organizations, aka the West. No one is going to liken Donald Trump and his manner of doing things to Gorbachev and his own manner. And yet, it may be that, in some upside-down way, a fateful twist of the dialectic ties the one man to the other, the pro-Russian American and the pro-American Russian. And somehow opposites have ended up the same.
In Gorbachev’s case, there was, at least, reason for him to contemplate radical action. The economic stagnation was real and entrenched everywhere in the Soviet bloc, and nothing seemed to point to an outbreak of renewed dynamism anytime soon. Still, there was no acute crisis. He could have gone slowly. And he had alternatives. By the mid-1980s, the Chinese Communists had already begun to demonstrate that a Communist society could follow the advice of Milton Friedman, and, in all other ways, remain faithful to principles of national power and imperial domination and stability. Wasn’t that a possibility for the Soviet Union? William Taubman, Gorbachev’s biographer, tells us that Gorbachev did not consider the Chinese alternative to be a possibility. Wasn’t there a Hungarian alternative, consisting of economic decentralization under a Communist dictatorship? Gorbachev chose, instead, to dismantle the empire, and to do it right away. Only, why?
A good half of modern political philosophy has been consumed with that question, and the answers have come down essentially to A) and B). Gorbachev dismantled his own empire because, A) his philosophical understanding of world events told him that dismantling the empire was in tune with the logic of history, and this understanding of his was fundamentally correct, and he was a visionary. Or, B) he went crazy.
Interpretation A) is the Hegelian one, resting on the idea of worldwide progress, with the ultimate in progress represented more by Kant’s idea of perpetual republican peace than by Hegel’s idea of bureaucracy and “spirit.” And Gorbachev wanted in on the worldwide progress. He wanted in because, unlike almost everyone else in the Communist Parties of the Soviet bloc in those days, he continued to take seriously the idealistic spirit that had animated the Russian Revolution in its earliest stages. He wanted to put the ideals into practice. And, if a choice had to be made between ideals and empire, he chose ideals.
Interpretation B) is Vladimir Putin’s. It rests on the notion that stability is all, and grandiosity is good, and progress is myth, and only a fool would believe otherwise. Gorbachev could not have risen to the top of the Communist Party if he was a fool. He was a solid man, then, who went out of his mind.
Gorbachev made his decision in 1985, and, because the decision bore no relation to anything that Russia had ever done during the previous millennium, no one believed him. Four years went by before anyone in the East Bloc satellite countries realized that, under the new circumstances, it might be possible to stage an anti-Soviet insurrection and get away with it. Another two years went by before the Soviet generals figured out that it was time for a coup d’état. But they were too late, and the coup failed, and, within a few months, the Soviet Union was officially disbanded.
During the next couple of decades, the vogue among political thinkers was to attribute these events to interpretation A), meaning, Gorbachev’s admirable and lucid recognition that progress is reality. The pendulum, however, began to shift some years ago, though without any marvelous essays like Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man to indicate the change. And interpretation B) has slowly come into vogue. This is the belief that progress is a topic scarcely worth talking about. And there is no such thing as a republican world-utopia. And we in the Western democracies would be foolish to take any additional risks or make any more efforts to promote the spread of 1989-style liberal-democratic revolutions in the future. And if some of the original liberal revolutions from the era of 1989 get rolled back, as does seem to be happening, we should not allow our indignation to get the better of us. We should look, instead, to our own stability.
But then, what are we to make of Trump and what appears to be his determined insistence on dismantling our own not-really-an-empire? He does not appear to be conflicted on this point. His every step leads in the same direction: the astonishing threat to abrogate the NATO treaty in regard to countries whose defense budgets he deems to be in arrears; the refusal to join in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is anti-China; the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord (a particularly wild decision, given America’s success during the last 200 years at promoting advanced energy technologies); the decision to withdraw from the anti-Iran alliance, instead of toughening it up; the tantrum at the Canadian G7 meeting; the vilification of the very neighbors, Canada and Mexico, whose peaceable natures have always provided the underpinning for America’s vocation for global hegemony; the kowtowing to a Russian autocracy whose economy is half the size of California’s; and onward. Back in the 1980s, Gorbachev wanted nothing more to do with the international system that was built by Stalin. And Trump appears to want nothing more to do with the counter-system that was built by Harry Truman.
Only, why? In the past there were interpretations A) and B) of Gorbachev, and right now there are four interpretations of Trump, to which I will assign numbers, instead of letters. If Trump is dismantling the post-WWII, American-led international democratic alliance, it is because, 1) The question is false. He is doing no such thing. He is merely shaking things up. Or, 2) He is a Russian agent.
The interesting interpretations, though, are 3) and 4), which turn out to be the exact counterparts, except in mirror reverse, of the interpretations that try to account for Gorbachev.
According to interpretation 3), Trump is indeed dismantling the American-led international system. And he is doing so for Gorbachev’s reason precisely, which is lucid intellectual conviction. Only, Trump’s conviction is different from Gorbachev’s. Gorbachev thought the Soviet bloc was an offense to Communist ideals, properly understood. Trump thinks America’s ideals are an offense to the American national interest. Harry Truman and his colleagues wanted the post-war system to be business-friendly. But their intention was never to build a business empire. The Atlantic alliance was not supposed to be the Hanseatic League. Their idea was to establish and solidify a democratic civilization. The purpose was to guarantee that nothing like the Nazis of the past would ever again emerge, and to fend off the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union in the present. And the purpose was to promote the kinds of social principles that could be agreed upon by social democrats and progressive conservatives.
But Trump takes a different view. He considers that America’s relations with the world should, in fact, be a matter of business interests, and nothing else. He considers that, from a business standpoint, the Atlantic alliance, which purports to be pro-American, has ended up being anti-American. The alliance is designed to hoodwink American workers and businessmen into acceding to their own exploitation. The ostensible hegemon is the actual underling. And it is obvious why he takes this view. Hegel believed in the movement of spirit through history. But Trump believes in neither spirit, nor history, nor ideals, nor in anything at all that is abstract, not laws, nor customs, nor even courtesy. He believes in what can be measured by dollars.
This is the source of his charisma. He regards the world as a giant lie, with himself as heroic truth-teller. Every time he puts his thumb in some high-minded person’s eye, he arouses a cheer from people who likewise regard the world and its ideals and principles as a system of deception. He is extremely radical in this respect, and the more extreme his radicalism becomes, the more excitement he arouses. Justin Trudeau said, in response to Trump, “Canadians, we’re polite, we’re reasonable.” And that is why Trump despises Trudeau and the Canadians. Polite reasonableness seems to him the lie of all lies. He tears off the veil. He sees the face of reality. It is ugly. It is Canadian dairy tariffs. And his public cheers, not because they care about dairy farmers but because the elegant hypocrisies of pink-cheeked abominations like Justin Trudeau and the right-thinking Canadians make them retch.
Or, alternatively, Trump has set out to dismantle America’s not-really-an-empire because, 4) he is crazy. He has no idea what he is doing. He doesn’t care. He is the head-of-state counterpart of the demoralized American worker who responds to the challenges of industrial decline by choosing drug addiction. He is not merely the sign of the cultural collapse in America, he is the collapse itself. Only, the degree of his craziness has been hard to detect, and that is because, unlike Gorbachev, who (in the Putin interpretation) was a crazy man who presented himself as sane, Trump presents himself all-too-honestly as crazy. But the self-presentation is so wild that people write it off as a joke. And, to be sure, we are living in a moment in which America’s most insightful foreign-affairs analyst turns out to be Dennis Rodman, and who is to say who is crazy?
The frightening thing about interpretations 1), 2), 3), and 4) of Trump is that it hardly matters which of them is true. Nor does it matter what is actually happening within Trump’s brain. The America that elected him plainly has no objection to the notion of dismantling the American not-really-an-empire. The Republicans are in favor, and the Democrats are not interested. Nor does anyone outside of the United States appear to be particularly upset. The European Union was supposed to be the democratic empire’s golden jewel, powerful and wealthy and more socially conscious than us callous Americans. Even now the French talk a good line. The End of Europe is nonetheless the title of James Kirchick’s book. Entire publics in one country after another have been reflecting for several years now on the fact that, when the economic crisis got underway a decade ago, no one seemed to be in charge of the economy. They have noticed that no one seems to be in charge of the refugee and immigration crises. No one seems to be in charge of responding to the cataclyms of the Middle East and the crisis of Islam. And, in Europe, the worried discovery that no one is in charge has brought about the populist revolts.
But that was in the innocent age before Trump. What will happen when, all over the world, people begin to recognize that the overall hegemon has quietly given up its historic role, and no one is in charge on a global scale, either? It took a few years before Gorbachev’s decision to dismantle the Soviet empire set off the revolutions in Eastern Europe. A few years from today, masses of people will contemplate Trump’s decision to reduce the United States to a business proposition. Worse, they will contemplate Trump’s decision to reduce the United States to something lower still—to a mafia enterprise, requiring ceremonies of fealty and humiliation from Canadians and Mexicans and everyone else. And this discovery will lead to a series of new revolts and revolutions. It is bound to happen. The rebellions will fly the flags of rightism and leftism, but, either way, they will be reactionary outbursts, intent on finishing off the post-WWII international democratic system. Who will try to tamp those future rebellions down? No one. Anyway, it will be too late. And if somewhere a hero of worldwide democratic civilization is quietly lurking—if there is a leader or a people or a movement or even a book or a magazine article, capable of blowing away the confusions and inspiring a bit of clarity and action—if somewhere there is a revitalizer, a thoughtful champion, a democratic militant—the hero’s whereabouts have yet to be revealed.
Read more of Paul Berman’s political and cultural analyses for Tablet magazine here.
Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.