Military Keynsianism, American Exceptionalism, and Trump

This Chas Freeman piece, The End of the American Empire, has gotten a lot of attention since it got posted yesterday. He talks about several key issues, starting with how counterproductive our “sphere of influence” Empire, which brings an expectation we can dictate the rules for all other countries (save China and Russia, and — I’d add — until recent successes in undermining Bolivarism, parts of South America) around the world.

The notion of a sphere of influence that is global except for a few no-go zones in Russia and China is now so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that our politicians think it entirely natural to make a number of far-reaching assertions, like these:

(1) The world is desperate for Americans to lead it by making the rules, regulating global public goods, policing the global commons, and doing in “bad guys” everywhere by whatever means our president considers most expedient.

(2) America is losing influence by not putting more boots on the ground in more places.

(3) The United States is the indispensable arbiter of what the world’s international financial institutions should do and how they should do it.

(4)  Even if they change, American values always represent universal norms, from which other cultures deviate at their peril. Thus, profanity, sacrilege, and blasphemy — all of which were not so long ago anathema to Americans — are now basic human rights to be insisted upon internationally. So are homosexuality, climate change denial, the sale of genetically modified foodstuffs, and the consumption of alcohol.

These American conceits are, of course, delusional. They are all the more unpersuasive to foreigners because everyone can see that America is now in a schizophrenic muddle — able to open fire at perceived enemies, but delusional, distracted, and internally divided to the point of political paralysis.

This sphere of influence Empire, on top of being horrible for the rest of the world, is also sucking the US dry internally.

Diplomacy-free foreign policy blows up enough things to liven up the TV news, but it generates terrorist blowback and it is expensive. There is a direct line of causation between European and American interventions in the Middle East and the bombings in Boston, Paris, and Brussels as well as the flood of refugees now inundating Europe. And so far this century, we’ve racked up over $6 trillion in outlays and future financial obligations in wars that fail to achieve much, if anything, other than breeding anti-American terrorists with global reach.

We borrowed the money to conduct these military activities abroad at the expense of investing in our homeland. What we have to show for staggering additions to our national debt is falling living standards for all but the “one percent,” a shrinking middle class, a rising fear of terrorism, rotting infrastructure, unattended forest fires, and eroding civil liberties. Yet, with the notable exception of Bernie Sanders, every major party candidate for president promises not just to continue — but to double down on — the policies that produced this mess.


Whatever the cure for our foul mood and foreigners’ doubts about us may be, it is not spending more money on our armed forces, piling up more debt with military Keynesianism, or pretending that the world yearns for us to make all its decisions for it or to be its policeman.

As it happens, I’m also reading Greg Grandin’s biography (I think the better description is “intellectual history”) of Henry Kissinger, which I also recommend. Grandin portrays Kissinger (a New Left figure with an old right morality or lack thereof, Grandin suggests) as the cornerstone for this process, down to what Freeman points to as one key problem with our Empire, that it gets run out of the National Security Council. I’m just part way in, but Grandin describes how Kissinger, partly in a bid to remain in Nixon’s good graces, packaged a bunch of foreign intervention (and because it’s Kissinger, outright genocide) for domestic consumption. We extended the Vietnam War to Cambodia and Laos not for strategic reasons but for domestic political consumption, dead protestors notwithstanding.

Both pieces resonate with something I’ve increasingly been thinking: that what gets called American Exceptionalism — which is really the sphere of influence Freeman describes packaged up under an always dubious and increasingly tarnished moral claim to authority — significantly served a domestic purpose (though it also served to accrue power for America’s elites, including its big corporations): to make Americans content with their lives, even if we never got the kind of social welfare that Europe instituted after World War II.

Europe got universal healthcare. We got the right to claim ourselves morally superior to the rest of the world, even if we paid more for crappy health insurance.

I’d add something neither man focuses on: American exceptionalism always has a domestic component, which largely involves white people (especially men) lording over people of color.

I raise all this because it’s something I’ve been thinking about increasingly this election year, to explain Trump especially, but also the counter-establishment mood generally. I think the electorate really consists of three blocks: Trump voters who want to reclaim the privileges of American exceptionalism for their own benefit (which is why his supporters so often express their outrage in terms of race, because exceptionalism involves the domination of both the rest of the world and of people of color domestically). Then there are the Hillary and mainstream GOP voters, who are trying to squeeze some benefit out of what Freeman rightly calls military Keynesianism (though I’d argue neoliberalism is about corporate welfare Keynesianism more generally). And then lefties — many but not all of whom support Sanders — who question both the corporate Keynesianism and, especially, the sphere of influence empire.

My real point, however, is that the Trump effect is secondary. It is absolutely true that American workers and middle class, generally, have been losing ground. And it absolutely true that whites may perceive themselves to be losing more ground as people of color equalize outcomes, however little that is really going on. It is, further, absolutely true that large swaths of flyover country whites are killing themselves, often through addiction, at increasing rates, which seems to reflect a deep malaise.

But I also think the effect of the Trump side of the equation — the thing that’s driving rabid adherence to an orange boob promising a big wall and domestic investment as well as promising to treat other countries with utter disdain — is secondary malaise, the loss of the self-belief that America actually is exceptional.

(White) America needs to stop believing its superior stems from the ability to lord over much of the rest of the world and start investing in actually living with the rest of the world.

10 replies
  1. bevin says:

    I’m not sure: much of what is being subsumed here as “exceptionalism” has its roots in Henry Clay’s American System, which need not be imperialistic at all but has “isolationist” (just leave us alone to our prosperous peaceful farms) components.

    Ideas of the City on a Hill and other “exceptionalist” tropes (?) are inescapable in US tradition, and the blood of racist slavery and genocidal land piracy gives everything a deep pink hue, but the idea of escaping the corruption and inequality of Europe and insisting on living wages and comfortable lives (including free education and access to culture) is also there and nothing to be ashamed of.
    As I tried to explain in the pieces of Totalitarianism, neo-liberalism and a global re-hashing of the Monroe Doctrine (in a most extreme form) are affronts to the traditions of Protectionism and social welfare which are also parts of the muddled, blotchy intellectual heritage-and are specifically contradictory of neo-liberalism.
    It is a saving grace of Trumpery that it pays some attention to anti-free trade ideas. “Making America Great again” need not necessarily mean putting a dictator on the throne of every country there is and allying with every fascist death squad at work.
    I’m sure that, for most of Trump’s voters it really means making cars in local factories, for high wages, short hours and decent pensions; opening the gates of the Universities to the poor; developing internal markets so that everyone has a job; and substituting good food, and fine physiques, for poison and obesity.
    The sort of world that Hamlin Garland and Vachel Lindsay wrote about and Upton Sinclair dreamed of.

  2. martin says:

    Meanwhile, the tax breaks/rules that were promulgated year by year, decade by decade by virtue of stinking lobbyists working for those .1% who fortunes were created in certain industries, such as Real Estate(hint hint), continue to shield them at a monstrous cost to the American economy, while hidden from the vast majority of the 99%, who, if enlightened to the facts, would rise up and hang every elite motherfucker and their children with extreme prejudice in a New York second, especially Trump. Unfortunately..the Dumbest Country on the Planet is too busy Keeping up with the Kardashians/Netflix while trying to survive on minimum wages. But not forever. All it will take is ONE nation wide catastrophe whereby the food chain is interrupted for a week or less. Like a massive coronal ejection. This country will explode.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I thought Grandin’s intellectual history (or sociology) of Henry Kissinger, whose Harvard mentor apparently virtually disowned him, was excellent.

    As discussed in Ed Walker’s series, neoliberalism’s great success has been in convincing us that its positions and priorities were not ruthless, extractive partisanship, but a kind of natural law, a mathematical holy writ of resource allocation that could not be bettered by intervention by the people or their government. That left the economic and cultural playing fields to the largest, most well-funded, and persistent players – America’s large corporations. We are living, or failing to live, with their priorities.

    So I would say that we have to learn to live with each other again as well as with the rest of the world. We have to resist the resource extraction, the profit at any price (as long as senior managers don’t pay it), the only good social benefit is a defunct social benefit mentality of those corporations. A mentality that neoliberals have succeeded in making us think is right and normal, thanks to the legion of business schools, think tanks and lobbying arms that spread that particular gospel. The challenge for us all seems to be a lot like helping Mr. Endicott want to learn from Mr. Tibbs, not slap him down.

  4. John Konopak says:

    Thucydides reports Pericles remonstrating with the Athenians on the tyranny of empire: “…Nor is it any longer possible for you to give up this empire … Your empire is now like a tyranny: it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go.”

  5. Ian says:

    But I also think the effect of the Trump side of the equation — the thing that’s driving rabid adherence to an orange boob promising a big wall and domestic investment as well as promising to treat other countries with utter disdain — is secondary malaise, the loss of the self-belief that America actually is exceptional.
    (White) America needs to stop believing its superior stems from the ability to lord over much of the rest of the world and start investing in actually living with the rest of the world.
    I SAY:
    Historically, with the death of George Washington & the return to Massachusetts of John Adams, the problems of American politicians self-proclaiming this country as “different” –meaning morally superior/better (from other Sovereignties of Christendom/European or Western heritage nations) while PRACTICING some profoundly ANTI-Western practices have continued ever since those Jacobin Slave-owners Thomas Jefferson & James Madison’s started the practice—-(The English Supreme Court had declared in 1772 [Somerset v Stewart (1772) 98 ER 499 ] that no King’s Court could enforce a contract of chattel slavery-yet Thomas Jefferson could insist on being regarded as “respectable” in polite American society while refusing to “make an honest women” of Sally Hemmings, he refused to pay the fee to the county required to free his own enslaved children & their mother, even by provisions in his will. Throughout recorded history makers of “last will & testament(s)” have “tried to do the right thing before they meet their Maker”—but not Mr Jefferson it seems–& [Commander-in-Chief] James Madison had the same curse placed upon him as King John I [of England] had, in June 1215,—that by personality alone, by temperament, he was unfit for the post of Commander-in-Chief of ANY country’s Armed Forces, not just the land of his own birth.
    Such differences between the SPEECH and the PRACTICE, between the VISION, the DREAM versus the REALITY have been a routine feature of American life for over two(2) Centuries now.
    With the end of both WWII & also the Cold War [by say 1991-1995] this country’s electorate, naturally are asking, where do we go from here, what should we do next?
    Inevitably, a significant section of the electorate can’t stand the idea that they should do as so many other European heritaged countries have had to do since 1945—settle down & do the very hard, boring work of making an honest living, benchmarking one’s own countries institutions against other countries institutions—NOT forgiving gross incompetence & malice “just because he/she is a compatriot”.
    Will other(preferably) European heritaged nations—rather than the nuclear bomb equipped Chinese —-have to “take a 2” x 4” “to the thick/ultra-insular skulls of this countries population?
    Will it work?
    Ask me in 20 years time—for I don’t know the answer.

    • emptywheel says:

      “settle down & do the very hard, boring work of making an honest living”

      That’s it exactly.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Rather like the hard, boring, I.F. Stonish work of parsing through government (mis-)statements. Thanks.

  6. Evangelista says:

    In your essay, first paragraph, Marcy, you write “our…empire”. Freeman goes on a bit farther, in your quotes, before shifting his reference from “our politicians” to “We (borrowed)”.

    You both indicate some kind of possession, ownership, responsibililty for the current United States government. Those indications jumped out at me as I read, because I do not recognize the Imperial United States to be mine, or any of its actions, initiated by actuators I do not recognize to act for my, or reflect my morality, morays, nature, character or will, to be my responsibility.

    I may be ahead of most in recognizing the present United States to be a foreign United States, a corrupt and self-styled imperial nation superimposed and oppressingly imposed on We The People of the Constitutional United States, the Republic created in 1787-89 with the creation of the United States Constitution, but the number coming to recognize, as I do, and recognizing with me has been increasing for over a century, and has been growing rapidly for several decades.

    There are a number of means by which the imperialists ascended to power, increased their controls and today maintain their ascendance. Chief amongst these is democracy. Democracy is touted a political system. In reality it is a tool. In a republic the tool democracy is used for decision-making. Spurious uses, and eruptions require to be checked and controlled, for the benefit and the welfare of the people and the republic and the principles and ideals republican government depends on. For illustration of this, consider that the nearest thing to ideal democracy is a lynch-mob: All are in favor of the mob-decision, except the one, or ones, being lynched, or to be lynched (a suicidal lynchee would make the democratic decision unanimous). In a lynching situation republican idealism emerges to control where a person, or group, steps forward to interfere with the mob decision-making. This occurs infrequently. It is not popular, especially while a “mood” is on the mob, and can be dangerous. It does not always succeed. When a lynching is prevented the event is respected, the interferer(s) honored. When republican interference to stop a democratic mob succeeds, it succeeds for members of the mob recognizing the value, to the public, of due process, which in such situations means education, learning the facts, hearing different views, making cool-headed decisions.

    In politics democracy is manipulated. Emergency legislation is a common example. The ‘October Surprise’ of U.S. elections is an example. propagandization, misinformation, disinformation, are tools to manipulate the tool. Due process, as noted, is a tool to control the tool. The controls for government in the U.S. Constitution are all designed to control re public, for the public. to impede abuse and misuse of powers and give those who would balance opportunity to balance.

    The public of a republic is inclusive. The public is all public. The public of a republic is not white-people, not colored people, not men, not women. Republics can be maintained when their publics are inclusive. A means to destroy a republic is to divide the people of the republic. To ‘divide and conquer’.

    Where you define in terms of divisions, ‘white-men’, ‘women’, ‘black-lives’, ‘Hispanics’, ‘wasps’, ‘Democrats’, ‘Republicans’, ‘Communists’, etc. you are defining parts of a public. Where you place those against each other, as, of and in themselves, you raise means to divide the public and to damage a republic. Division amongst peoples is inevitable, of course, and the tool of democracy requires distinctions to be delineated to function. So, as in due process, the ideal, that that the principle is enshrined to support and maintain, is to retain focus on the purpose in terms of benefit to the public in entirety. Equal justice, for example, serves everyone. Equal justice means that everyone receives the same benefit in equivalent circumstance. Inequality is detrimental in any application. To overcome past inequality requires assuring equality in future. Attempting to ‘adjust’, or ‘rebalance’ by shifting inequality from one side to the other only pushes imbalance another direction. This makes more division and makes indignation worse, and universal.

    What you call “the Trump effect” is not white (men) angry at losing their “exceptionalism” privileges, as you assign. Defining it as such adds artificial divisions and aids the imperialists in dividing and conquering. Defining those adhering to Trump as “Trump voters who want to reclaim the privileges of American exceptionalism for their own benefit” is self-deluding (it actually is a whole lot worse, but self-delusion is enough). Your ” American exceptionalism…has a domestic component, which largely involves white people (especially men) lording over people of color” is also delusional, but not as irretrievably unbalanced. By adding in another layer, to read, ‘..which largely involves self-assuming ‘superior’ people lording selected people over other people’ it could be made to recognize an element of what brought domestic discord in the United States to the present state. To forcibly adjust a society you have to use force. In a republican government you cannot use force for any purpose except to ensure, or restore, tranquility. That is, to control the out of control. That is, to restore order so that balance and order, equality of justice, can be rationally discussed and coordinated to principles defined by ideals.

    Currently, in domestic politics, you might already notice, the ‘Establishments’ are throwing Trump and Sanders together in the same ‘Outsiders’ camp. My view, at present, is that a Trump-Sanders ticket would be, for the United States and all The People in it, the best possible thing. Before you go off to thow-up at the idea, learn something about Trump’s positions, go to his website and read his policy statements. There is more to him than the “orange boob” attack-dog personna he displays with such fine and fun effect. Trump has the backbone Sanders seems to lack, and a refreshing lack of Washington savvy, while Sanders has the diplomatic skills and insider knowledge Trump doesn’t show. Both, along with all of the different peoples who make up The People of the United States are more complex than simple categorizings allow.

  7. PeasantParty says:

    H. Kissinger is one of this worlds most evil humans. Well, that is if you still consider him human.

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