It is said that during the 1990s’ time of troubles in Russia a popular view held that the prevailing chaos and ruin could only be redressed by a leader meeting the description of “Adolf Vissarionovich Pinochet.” (Адольф Виссарионович Пиночет). The composite name of this hypothetical rescuer featured (1) the surname “Pinochet” of the anti-communist Chilean military strongman, (2) the patronymic “Vissarionovich” of Joseph “the Great Helmsman” Stalin, and (3) the first name “Adolf” of – well, you know…
Let’s leave aside for now whether Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin bears any remote resemblance to this imaginary (but 20 years ago, much hoped-for) personage except to note that Russia under his tenure has made an astonishing comeback. As described by historian Vladimir Brovkin:
“What Putin has accomplished or what Russia has accomplished since 2000 is astonishing. It amounts to a political, economic, and moral revolution. Any aspect of Russia’s existence you take, you see measurable progress. The standard of living has grown, pensions are paid, factories are working, and unemployment is lower than in most European countries. Life expectancy has steadily increased, birth rates have increased, and incomes have increased. Education is back, Russian research and development is back again, one of the best in the world and not staffed by foreigners who flock to Silicon Valley, but staffed by Russians educated in Russia.
“Military technology made a breakthrough of historical significance. For the first time ever Russia has weapons superior to those of the US, not to mention Britain, France and Germany combined.
“For the first time in a hundred years Russian agriculture is producing for export and for the first time ever, Russia exported more grain than the US.”
One should add that this has been accomplished along with a dramatic revival of Russia’s prerevolutionary Orthodox Christian identity and commitment to traditional moral authority in the family and the nation, including in public institutions like thearmed forces. This adds to post-modern western elites’ hatred for Putin personally and Russia generally.
So if Russia under Putin has been given at least a shot at becoming great again, what about America’s chances under Donald John Trump?
This is not the time to rehash America’s self-evident decades-long decline under the predatory ministrations of Republicans and Democrats alike. Suffice it to say that Donald Trump was elected by a fluke of history about as improbable as Putin’s emergence from the Yeltsinite “Swamp.” The question is: is it conceivable that Trump could accomplish for our country anything remotely approaching what Putin has done for his?
For some, merely to pose the question in such terms is not only to exonerate (altogether now!) the evil, murderous, KGB thug Putin but to consign the American experiment in democracy to extinction under Trump’s alleged autocracy envy. In an Aesopian warning against Trump, generally level-headed Bruce Fein warns that the growth of Executive power, no matter how well-guided by a latter-day Cicero (not anywhere in sight anyway), presents a mortal danger to constitutionalism:
“Cicero foolishly believed that he could salvage the Roman Republic from Julius Caesar’s dictatorship by inculcating Republican virtue in Octavian, his would-be successor. Following his defeat of Mark Anthony in the last Roman civil war, Octavian exercised, de facto, all of the dictatorial powers of Julius Caesar. Cicero’s tutorials proved trifles light as air. The Roman Senate became ornamental only, and the Republic became an Empire. Octavian changed his name to Caesar Augustus, and the Senate deified him.
“The Republic was never restored. The Empire, earmarked by limitless executive power, began spiraling downward featuring the likes of Nero, Caligula, Tiberius, and Elagabalus. It collapsed in 410 A.D. with the sacking of Rome by the Visigoth King Alaric. More enlightened Emperors like Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius were at best speed bumps in the Empire’s road to self-ruination. [ . . . ]
“The Constitution embodies more collective wisdom about human nature, the corruption of power, and the majesty of liberty and justice than any other government charter that has been conceived or tried. We must elude the Cicero Trap. Our plight is not the absence of a Sir Launcelot to rescue Guinevere. It is the withering of our constitutional institutions calculated to protect against limitless executive power and tyranny.”
The warning against a Lancelot or some other man on a white horse as our would-be deliverer presumes that there is a modicum of constitutional integrity left to salvage. That is not self-evident. In 2005 the late Joseph Sobran called our country “Post–Constitutional America,” adding that nowadays “the U.S. Constitution poses no serious threat to our form of government.” Things have gotten a lot worse since.
Again, one hardly need supply the details. We have presidents who make war at will, with Congress at best compliant enablers; a supposed “legal tender” printed by fiat of the Federal Reserve and underwritten by Wahhabist despots; legislative authority wielded by unelected bureaucrats in cahoots with the corporate interests they supposedly police; centralization of national power that renders the several “sovereign” states little more than federal administrative districts; an imperial Judiciary that usurps Executive and Legislative authority alike with nary a murmur of protest, while making up constitutional “rights” that appear nowhere in the text; human wreckage in what had been our manufacturing heartland; a “democracy” consisting of a corrupt market-sharing deal between two entrenched parties whose main activity is spending obscene amounts of money; collusion of multiculturists and plutocrats to debase the value of citizenship by mass importation of aliens, both legal and illegal, coupled with court-mandated lack of ballot security; a massive military structure designed for global power projectionbut has been useless for defending our own borders.
In short, whatever the Founding Fathers meeting at Philadelphia in 1787 had sought to ordain and establish for themselves and their posterity, their work has long since become window-dressing for lawless, arbitrary power. As Robert E. Lee warned in his day, “The consolidation of the states into one vast empire, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of ruin which has overwhelmed all that preceded it.” He hardly could have imagined how “aggressive abroad and despotic at home” the post-constitutional order would turn out to be. (But who cares about the opinion of a traitor who fought to preserve slavery?)
Fein writes that under Octavian, having morphed into the divine Augustus, “the Republic was never restored.” But perhaps “restore” is the wrong word. More to the point, was the Roman polity preserved? Citing Ohio State University Professor of Classics at Anthony Kaldellis, Brian Patrick Mitchell argues in the affirmative:
“The standard story that the Roman republic ended with Caesar Augustus becoming emperor is therefore simply wrong, says Kaldellis. The republic lived on, albeit in a new phase, the Principate, in place of the earlier Consulate. Historians call the republic’s later, third phase the Dominate – during which military emperors, ruling from wherever military necessity demanded, came to be addressed for the first time in Roman history as Domine, or ‘Lord.’ The fourth, final, and longest phase, by far, was Byzantium, lasting from the fifth to the 15th century, during which emperors ruled as civilians from the city officially named New Rome but commonly called Constantinople (‘Constantine’s city’) and founded originally as Byzantion (Byzantium in Latin).”
Given the terminal breakdown confronting the Roman state and society in the days of the first century BC Triumvirs – comparable to that of the USSR in the late 1980s and the Russian Federation of the 1990s, and of America on the eve of Trump’s election – it’s hard to see how Rome could have been preserved as a unified, functioning society other than the way Octavian did it: save what can be saved, trash what can’t, and move on. Contra Fein, the result was not a downward spiral but the consolidation and perpetuation of the Roman order, notably in its Christian form that was to last for more than a millennium. It is no accident that it is the glory of this Rome, not of the pre-Principiate republic, that European states for centuries have sought to emulate, from the Carolingians, to the Holy Roman Empire, to the Russian Third Rome, to Napoleon, and even somewhat to the United States.
Supposed “constitutional conservatives” of the #NeverTrump hue doggedly appeal to an ahistorical originalism reminiscent of dissatisfied Soviet liberals during the 1960s-70s Brezhnevite “stagnation” who sought a return to “pure” Leninism purged of Stalin’s supposed deviations. (A.I. Solzhenitsyn wrote of himself in an earlier period: “The author of these lines, who in his day landed in jail precisely because of his hatred of Stalin, whom he reproached with his departure from Lenin, must now admit that he cannot find, point to, or prove any substantial deviations.”) Certainly America’s founding was far more humane and decent than that of the bloody-handed Bolsheviks. But a time machine back to the habits, expectations, and morals that undergird our second and theoretically current Constitution, today honored mainly in the breach, is a fantasy.
This is not to argue against such vestigial protections of religion, free speech, right to bears arms, and others that we still possess – for now – but to suggest that they aren’t likely to survive much longer as the edifice of the old America continues to crumble under the malfeasance of the very Executive, Legislative, and Judicial officials who pretend to be its custodians. Trump’s critics on the establishment Right know this, reserving their heavy fire for his 2016 campaign pledges to control America’s borders (and build The Wall), rectify one-sided trade relations with our supposed “partners” (and restore our manufacturing base), and withdraw us from the global empire business (get along with the Russians, stop mucking about in Syria and Ukraine, no more regime change or nation-building).
Such detractors have been only too happy to team up with the Left, the Deep State (FBI, CIA, and their pals in the United Kingdom, notably MI6 and GCHQ), and the media to beat back Trump’s threat to business as usual and allow the rot to continue apace. Sad to say, even many of Trump’s backers concede that they have largely succeeded. While there has been some stepped up immigration enforcement, The Wall has not been built, extreme vetting (forget the Muslim ban) remains tied up by the courts, and Sanctuary jurisdictions flout federal law with impunity; some partial progress has been made on trade, but the jury is still out; on foreign and security policy, Trump administration personnel and policy alike amount to a third Bush presidency.
Nonetheless, one can’t help thinking that inside President Trump there’s a tiny little Candidate Trump from 2016 fighting to get out. Against the recommendations of his advisers, he decided to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un – whether the meeting comes off remains to be seen. Seemingly on a whim, he has declared we’ll be withdrawing our (illegal) presence in Syria “very soon,” to the horror of the supposed experts. Even a possible meeting – at the White House! – with Putin has been floated.
Thus, there’s still a ray of hope – if Trump manages to avoid getting sucked into a war against Iran or North Korea (or God forbid, Russia) and somehow manages to avoid impeachment if, as many expect, the House flips to the Democrats. As an aspiring Octavian goes it’s not much, but it’s better than anything else we could have expected.
On the other hand, if Trump is removed or falters further from his populist campaign promises (that is, even worse than his underwhelming delivery so far), America’s decline will accelerate and soon become irreversible. In that case, history will rank him with another leader who sought to save the failing system he inherited but instead ended up a catalyst for its further destabilization, ushering in its final collapse.
His name is Mikhail Gorbachev.