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After Trump, We Really Will Have to Make America Great Again

History shows that nations can overcome mediocre and malignant leaders, but it will take some work.
April 10, 2019
After Trump, We Really Will Have to Make America Great Again
(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Over the last 20 years there has been a particular form of navel gazing popular among prognosticators of American decline, but recently picked up among the American left in the wake of the Trump presidency—surely folks are worried; no one seems willing to treat their own illness; everyone is obsessed with the other guy’s symptoms.

One can barely escape the malaise, as it were. Comparisons to the British Empire at their height and relative decline are popular, though a stronger comparison might be with the Byzantine Empire of the 11th century, where a series of mediocre-to-malignant emperors and factions squabbled their way to defeat at Manzikert.

Yet there’s hope for renewal. Take, for example, Warren Treadgold’s remarks on this civilizational decadence cum restoration in his epic The History of the Byzantine State and Society:

“After centuries of capable emperors had brought Byzantium to an apex of power under Basil II, a mere fifty-six years of misgovernment had squandered half the empire’s territory, nearly all of its huge army and ample treasury, and a long tradition of growing security and stability. The preponderance of incompetent emperors after Basil was striking, but no accident. Powerful bureaucrats and generals had guarded their influence by repeatedly promoting nonentities to the throne, undermining the few leaders who showed some initiative. The prevailing prosperity had doubtless produced a larger and richer crop of officials than before; but they could never have exercised their power so irresponsibly under emperors as strong as Basil II — or as George Maniaces would probably have been. By the time the officials had had their way, the state had been so thoroughly wrecked that repairing it required not just a competent ruler, but a political and military genius.”

The years of mismanagement, the loss of prestige and soft power, the weakening of American commitments to our allies and the sacrifice of a long tradition of security and stability of the post-World War II order are all signs that we are perhaps nearing the retentissement of an oft-repeated historical tragedy.

Of course, the Byzantine Empire took another 400 years to collapse. Yet it was revived as a regional if truncated power by the now-famous Kommenoi dynasty, which restored Byzantine supremacy along the old Levantine coastline and preserved the old routes of trade and stability—all the while fighting off Turks and Crusaders alike.

Byzantium is relevant because it is one of the great inheritors of a Greco-Roman tradition one likes to think of as “the West”—or more accurately, the great inheritance thrust upon us as Americans to preserve in the face of its enemies and detractors.

The good news is that the Pax Byzantium was no different than the Pax Britannica or the Pax Americana. The institutions of Byzantium were strong, therefore Byzantium survived. The institutions of Great Britain were strong, ergo the Empire survived revolution, global war, and the transition to Commonwealth. Even the Russian Empire endured the transition from Soviet to oligarch. Quo vadis, America?

The grand lesson here isn’t so much that institutions can survive feckless politicians (surely the modern Catholic Church is evidence of that). Rather, the grand concern that we should all preoccupy ourselves with are the moments where demagogues cash out the public trust for personal gain. In this, individuals such as the Clintons and the Trumps of the world seem like mortal threats to our republican form of government, as bastards but not inheritors, and every bit as dangerous as a Crassus or a Sulla for one simple reason alone—they tend to attract the Caesars and Caligulas of the world.

In our postmodern age, we like to quip about the “little Robespierres” that we have created on college campuses. The Jacobins of past and present were not the first to practice the fine art of the political grift. Yet even Robespierre met his match, and history continues to prove the dictum that social regeneration occurs in the wake of great personalities. Cicero had the will to confront Catilline, Jefferson confronted Hamilton, Wellington confronted anti-Catholicism, Churchill confronted Chamberlain, and even Reagan confronted the proprietors of detente with visions of the “Evil Empire” and the moral necessity of defeating the Soviet Union through peaceful means.

The charlatans of our age present the same base arguments for mediocrity. Like drones in a beehive, imposters mimic but never create the fuel that drives society. Perhaps it is our fallen nature to grow lazy and mimic such pretenders. Yet what should distinguish any strong society—or any set of strong institutions—is the ability and the willingness of personalities stronger than our own decadence to set the world to rights.

The old Jeffersonian “empire of liberty” based on free trade and free goods deserves champions. The new Reaganism of free markets, free minds, and a free society deserves warriors ready to uphold the right.

The Pax Americana has another 50 years before a serious challenge emerges, at least that is if history proves any measure. The question remains in this: Are we going to continue to tolerate the national grift that pretends to be leadership? Or are we stronger than our fears? In short, our options are Pearl Harbour 1941 or France 1940; restoration or capitulation.

If our leaders are any expression of the national will, surely we can do far better than the present. The future depends on it.

Shaun Kenney

Shaun Kenney is the former executive director of the Republican party of Virginia and a graduate student at the Catholic University of America.