The coming collapse of the American Republic
It was a scene reminiscent of a national parliament from a banana republic. On Wednesday — the 6th of January — after being told by Donald Trump that the “election was stolen”, a large group of Trump supporters marched on to the Capitol Hill, and stormed the chambers of the United States’ first branch of government — in order to “stop the steal”.
The thousands of rioters, who barged in the Capitol building, urinated on the marble steps, vandalised the Senatorial offices and quite literally took the House Speaker’s stand. The lawmakers trapped inside had to barricade themselves or be rapidly escorted to safe zones by the Capitol police. All this while grotesquely dressed rioters posed on the Senate President’s chair for photographs.
The mania continued till the DC National Guard secured the chambers. By the end of the day, the vandalism and chaos had consumed the lives of at least 4 rioters and 1 police officer.
Soon-after — institutions that may now be described as the “Establishment” — the mainstream media, the Silicon Valley oligarchs and the Democratic Party — moved to remove Trump from all areas of civic life.
Facebook and Instagram put an ‘indefinite’ ban on Donald Trump, and Twitter ‘permanently suspended’ Donald Trump from its platform. Most American broadsheets roundly condemned Trump for “inciting the protestors” to riot and called for his removal. The Democrats, who now control all chambers of Government, happily obliged them by drafting the articles of impeachment. As of today, the Senate has once again acquitted Donald Trump — albeit this time seven Republicans joined Democrats in voting Trump guilty.
Everyone agreed that the storming of the Capitol Hill was another nadir in the American political life. And a lousy way to round off an already chaotic 2020.
2020 had already seen a substandard American response to coronavirus. The United States racked up a record number of deaths due to the pandemic, which did much to destroy America’s reputation of getting things done and handling crises.
This is notwithstanding the relentless rioting in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Many of the same institutions condemning the pro-Trump mobs that rampaged the Capitol Hill were willfully justifying violence when it was done in the name of ‘Black Lives Matter’.
What is clear is that today the races, classes and factions of the United States are at each other’s throats. Is the United States’ time up? Like the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD, is the United States too facing a collapse of gargantuan propositions?
The Great Divides
The America the octogenarian Joe Biden inherits is a far cry from the America he experienced when he entered politics in the early 1970s. In the 1970s, there were divisions, ‘culture wars’ (such as the Civil Rights movement), scandals (Watergate) and intractable international disputes (as in Vietnam). But fundamentally, the country could unite around a President when it needed to — as it would under Ronald Reagan, who carried 49 out of 50 states in 1984 Presidential Election.
However, in today’s America the fissures are too deep to be resolved by a ‘candidate’.
Social issues such as gay marriage, abortion, ‘multiculturalism’ and the mainstreaming of LGBT narratives in popular culture have bitterly exacerbated the cultural divide in the country. There are those who consider this as a natural extension of the logic of natural rights and destruction of prevailing “power structures”; against those who see the advent of such radical social progressivism as a fundamental negation of America’s Christian or white heritage.
Apart from this, the unprecedented immigration that America has experienced over the past 40 years — when over 40 million from around the world came and settled in the United States — has rapidly changed the ethnic fabric of the American nation.
Before 2050, the white majority is expected to become a minority. This has meant creeping ethnic balkanisation of politics. The Republican Party is becoming largely the party of rural and working class whites, and the Democratic Party the party of minorities and elite professionals.
Furthermore, the unfettered globalisation of the past 40 years has created a huge economic gulf between the coastal regions and the hinterland and stagnated incomes for the majority of Americans. These developments come at a time when Silicon Valley and Wall Street continue to rake in record valuations and profits.
Most of the developments are reflected in the routine politics of the nation. Since 1997, the United States Congress has not passed a comprehensive appropriations bill (this is what is called a budget is most other countries). It has largely financed the US government through stopgap arrangements by passing the ‘continuing resolutions’ to avert a shutdown (which of course, has not always been successful — as the numerous shutdowns in recent years are proof). The key reason — gridlock and division over spending priorities.
Similarly, the use of filibuster has been weaponised to a degree that getting anything done in the Senate requires a 3/5th majority as opposed to a simple majority, which is the norm in most parliaments for any general legislation. This has meant legislative gridlock for whichever President happened to be in the White House — whether Obama or Trump. This also explains why many Democrats, who now control both the Houses of Congress, are dead set on neutering the filibuster entirely.
It seems the American nation — that is, a people united by a sense of common destiny — clearly does not exist anymore.
But its not just these social and ethnic cleavages that Joe Biden shall have to wrangle with, he would also have to contend with the United States’ long standing economic problems. Government debt as percentage of GDP — at over 130% — has already crossed World War 2 heights. Near-permanent fiscal and trade deficits continue to fuel the debt.
Meanwhile steady deindustrialisation in the hinterland, attributed to ‘globalisation’ but really due to ruthless East Asian mercantilism, has handicapped America’s manufacturing strength in comparison to the Chinese industrial behemoth. On a purchasing power parity basis, China’s GDP is already 10% higher than the United States’; and its manufacturing output is at least 40% higher. Donald Trump’s tariffs appear not to have reversed these changes in any substantial manner.
On the foreign policy front America is fighting with possibly every major power. In a classic case of what historians may call ‘imperial overstretch’ — the United States is taking on Sunni radical groups (such ISIS and Al Qaeda) in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran (a Shiite theocracy), Russia and China; all at the same time.
This explains why the United States seems to be present in every major theatre — whether it be the Levant, the Af-Pak region, Eastern Europe or the South China Sea. It also explains why traditional rivals such as China and Russia are growing closer by the day — they have a common enemy to unite them.
The United States, therefore, is entering the new decade as a nation most divided since the beginning of its Civil War in 1860; with intractable troubles both at home and abroad.
However, in 1860, the United States was an agricultural nation of not more than 31 million souls — largely peripheral to the fate of the world. Today’s United States is a superpower. It has led the world in the creation and adoption of technologies — from the automobile to the internet — that define modernity; it remains the biggest importer of goods and services and the hegemony of the US dollar underpins the trade and financial system of the world. And most importantly, its military is still the ultimate broker of world peace.
It is my view that current divisions and the unravelling of the American nation will fundamentally end United States’ role as the undisputed superpower, and lead to the denouement of the United States’ republican experiment itself. The future shall be a disunited country held together by a strong despotic state backed by a collection of interests, similar to Yugoslavia for much of the 20th century, the Austro-Hungarian empire till the First World War or the Roman Empire post the denouement of the Roman Republic.
In this essay, I try to chart out a broad conjecture as to how this could come about.
Phase 1: Worsening Divisions
It is likely that close to half the American electorate consider Joe Biden an illegitimate President — largely due to claims of election malfeasance pressed on by the previous President Donald Trump. Most polls, for instance, report that at least 70% of Republicans believe the election to be ‘stolen’.
In spite of Biden’s talk of unity and reconciliation during his inauguration address, the deeper divisions mentioned previously in this article will not go away.
The agenda that Biden-Harris administration has already begun pursuing (if the executive actions are to go by) — loosening of Trump’s immigration restrictions, stopping the construction of the border wall, pushing for amnesty to illegal immigrants already present within the US borders, pushing radical progressivist ideologies — such as reparations based on the colour of skin — across American institutions — are quite antithetical to the Trump’s ‘America First’ programme. In contrast to Biden, Trump called for a strong stand against what is considered ‘political correctness’ and a massive curtailing of immigration. A protectionist stance in trade against China seems to be the only aspect of Trump policies that the new Biden administration intends on carrying.
This means that a good number of the approximately 74 million voters who voted for Donald Trump will not be reconciled to the Biden administration. Therefore, it is likely that the backlash to this Democratic administration would be far more fierce than the Tea Party backlash to Obama administration in 2010.
It also likely that Republican Party will be the central vehicle to carry this radicalism to Washington DC — given its complete conversion to Trumpism. Over the past 4 years, while Donald Trump was unable to get much of his agenda passed in DC, he commanded consistently high approval ratings within his own party for most of his Presidential term. Formerly, under the likes of George Bush and Mitt Romney, the GOP cared more about taxes and a strong military; today’s GOP cares more about immigration and trade.
The humiliation of Donald Trump and his purge from all social media will never be forgotten by his loyal base (nor, for that matter, will the ransacking of the Capitol Building be forgotten by the American establishment). It is therefore likely that Republican Congressional leadership is slowly ‘primaried’ into radicalism over the next two years.
There are two questions to ask here. One, will this downward spiral of partisanship and radicalisation in DC stop and reverse in any way? Two, if the answer to the first question is a no, then what will the endgame look like?
To the first question, the answer is quite simple. The divisions underpinning the American society are so profound — from ideological and class-based cleavages to outright racial ones; that short of brilliant statesmanship, it is highly unlikely any reconciliation between any factions is possible.
Broadly speaking today, the Republican coalition harvests its votes from the rural and working class whites, whereas the Democratic coalition harnesses the urbane professional elite along with minorities.
Moreover, the people of the United States continue to live segregated existence. There is a general consensus amongst most experts that — while the non-white population has dramatically increased in the recent years — housing and schooling tends to overwhelmingly align on racial lines.
Beyond this racial divide is a steep ideological and cultural divide within White America itself — as masterfully detailed by Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart. The white elite form the technocratic aristocracy, and live, through stable incomes and families, profoundly different lives from the lower and the working class whites, who seemed to have succumbed to a dopamine-filled, church-less, family-less existence with stagnated or diminishing incomes.
The histories of Yugoslavia, India under the British Raj and the Western Roman Empire are proof of the balkanisation that results in when different ethnicities who do get along together are compelled to live together. Centuries old tribalist sentiments reared their heads when the iron grip of Communist rule ended in Yugoslavia towards the end of the 20th century. The result was widespread inter-ethnic rape and genocide.
In British India, the Muslim elite overwhelmingly voted for political parties that supported the creation of Pakistan in the 1946 elections. This eventually led to a bloody partition a year later, which saw the largest forced transfer of population in the history of mankind, when over 16 million crossed newly created borders.
Similarly, the large-scale immigration of Goths, Vandals and other Germanic tribes, which began from late 4th century AD into the Western Roman Empire, created ‘centrifugal’ political forces that soon slowly undid the Empire by the end of the 5th Century. This was not the first time ‘barbarian’ immigrants came into Rome, rather this was the first time they were allowed to retain their independence and identity within the Roman territory (and not forced to ‘Romanise’) — which essentially rendered them semi-autonomous entities within the empire.
There is no basis in history for a nation to sustain itself after ethnic balkanisation occurs unless held together by a despotic strong state.
As for the ideological and cultural gulf between sections within an ethnicity — as is the case within White America — there usually exists a huge turn of the masses towards radical protest parties and ideologies. In the last free elections of Weimar Germany in 1932, the National Socialists (Nazis) and Communists garnered over 45% of the total vote. Both exploited the illegitimacy of the Weimar establishment — in evidence thanks to Treaty of Versailles and the economic depression of the early 1930s.
Donald Trump himself was one such protest candidate in 2016.
Therefore, given the divisions within the United States, the hyper-partisanship of Washington DC will likely continue and worsen.
On the second question, what is likely to happen over the medium to long term if the current divide exacerbates itself? Here I can only provide a conjecture.
In the event, the Republicans take over the House of Representatives in 2022 — highly probable since the President’s party tends to lose the first mid-terms and the Republicans have an ingrained advantage when contesting the House — it is likely that they shall seek to kill Biden’s legislative agenda through profound gridlock (just the Democrats killed Trump’s legislative agenda after they took control of the House in 2018; and just as the Republicans killed the Obama agenda when they took control of the House in 2010), and begin mining for an impeachable offence. Perhaps Hunter Biden’s well documented shady deals in Russia and China will provide enough material. Perhaps, there will be something else.
The reason behind a probable impeachment is not so much the fact that there may or may not be merit in the offences conducted. Rather, it will be the outcome of the logic of hyper-partisanship. Hyper-partisanship is like war between two nations. Truth matters less than your side winning the day. For instance, many Democrats promised to impeach Trump when campaigning to take control of the House of Representatives in 2018. Even though Trump’s Ukraine call scandal (the offence for which he was eventually impeached in 2019) occurred in the July of 2019 — a full 7 months after the 2018 mid-term elections.
If the United States descends into a cycle of impeachment and/or extreme gridlock in the event one party controls the White House and the other the legislative chambers; or has elections whose integrity is repeatedly contested (regardless of whether its true), the country is likely to become ungovernable — unable to formulate and implement any sort of grand strategy whether it be in the economic, social or foreign policy realm. And therefore, be absolutely incapable of tackling any of its long-standing problems of imperial overstretch, de-industrialisation or mounting debt not to mention unprecedented breakdown of the family life and ethnic balkanisation.
Phase 2: Defeat
Such a chaotic state of affairs may allow for a ‘threshold moment’ — an occasion that fundamentally undermines the image of the United States as the broker of world peace and the ‘indispensable nation’. This shall likely involve China — the only other power with the economic resources and population to combat the United States.
As China grows its power — both industrial and military — China may eventually decide to settle the Taiwan question. The union of Taiwan with the mainland is central to the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China’s promise of bringing China into the 21st century. Alternatively, China may also end up clashing with one of its neighbours in the South China Sea thanks to the innumerable boundary disputes it has with them.
A moment such as this is likely to have two possible scenarios.
One, a thorough American retreat, in which case the United States lets China dominate in East Asia. Retreating from Taiwan or South China Sea would mean that America retreats from the Korean peninsula and Japan as well. Because losing Taiwan would mean losing Japan — for reasons very clearly outlined by writer and strategist Tanner Greer here.
Given the propensity to war of the American establishment, it is profoundly unlikely that the United States would quietly back out of East Asia. The military-industrial establishment in the United States after a century-long military supremacy, is psychologically incapable of retreat. It is this attitude more than anything else that explains the endless and fruitless conflicts the United States is currently engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Two, and more likely, a military clash — which could materialise in a localised skirmish somewhere in the South China sea. The clash is unlikely to mutate into an all-out war due to the mutually assured destructive nature of nuclear war.
Considering China’s economic strength and its recent investments in its military, and the fact that much of its navy (almost twice as large as the United States) is concentrated around South China Sea — as China’s planners view the region their most important theatre — it is likely that China would win any such fight.
The reason is that, while the overall American firepower is generally greater than China’s as of today. One tends to forget that this gigantic power is projected over multiple frontiers — the Americas (home), Europe to neutralise Russia, the Levant to neutralise Iran and deal with radical Sunni militias and finally East Asia and South China Sea. The Chinese, with the exception of the Indian border, and shipping lanes from the Middle-East are largely concerned with their immediate neighbourhood in the South China Sea.
For China, a war in the South China Sea would be equivalent to what Spanish-American War of 1898 was for the burgeoning United States of the late 19th century — a critical drive to create a sphere of influence in the immediate neighbourhood, and a move essential for China’s long-term security.
An American military defeat in South China Sea will destroy the chimera of the United States as ‘the indispensable nation’.
Such an event could trigger a collapse in the perception of American omnipotence. This in turn will have widespread economic ramifications.
Phase 3: Economic Collapse
The cornerstone of American power — whether it be military or cultural — is America’s economic strength (and the perception that it shall persist). It is the shine of America’s GDP number — which currently amounts to approximately $21 trillion — that allows the dollar to reign as the world’s reserve currency, and guarantee the astonishingly low interest rates for its borrowing.
This means that unlike most other countries, the United States can print its way out of a recession — which is effectively what ‘quantitative easing’ is. It also means that the United States gets to run outrageous fiscal and trade deficits over a long term with impunity.
But most importantly, it allows the United States to service a $700 billion-plus military-industrial complex, which acts as the ultimate guarantor of its power.
As with the Roman Empire two millennia ago, the ‘market’ and investors consider US pre-eminence to be ‘eternal’ — in spite of the calamitous Trump years. What else could explain the astonishingly low yields in the face of a ballooning debt, permanent deficits, never-ending wars and a chaotic 2020?
But the facts have steadily undermined this chimera of American economic competence. While the United States remains a substantial economic power, its industrial base has steadily been undermined or stagnated when compared with the best across the world.
Today’s United States makes fewer semiconductors than Taiwan, fewer ships and solar panels than South Korea, and about as many cars and steel and cement as Japan.
On the other hand, the United States’ biggest competitor China, with a manufacturing base at least 40% larger, makes 7 times more steel, more than twice as many cars, more than 20 times as many ships, and at least 6 times as many solar panels. China is also on its way to get its own Boeing very soon with the state-subsidised Comac’s aircrafts making its first deliveries.
Another proof of the United States’ industrial decline is its vast trade deficit in capital intensive goods (where the comparative advantage arises from machinery, know-how and capital). Moreover, its manufacturing sector has shrunk to less than 12% of the economy — substantially less than other rich countries such as Japan and Germany (both at approx. 20%).
The rise of Big Tech giants such as Apple and Facebook and the advent of easy money (which tends to artificially inflate finance and real estate sectors) via debt and quantitative easing has distracted most observers from the general industrial decline of the United States.
But market confidence may not decrease in proportion to the reality of economic activity. As the countless bubbles in financial history are proof, confidence is subject to irrational exuberance. Often, it is a dramatic event that induces a panic and eventually a crash which corrects the market.
Similarly the belief in American superiority and dominance wont go even if the basis for that belief is subsiding gradually.
Will an American military loss in East Asia or South China Sea prove to be the ‘dramatic event’ or the ‘threshold moment’ — which induces a significant collapse in confidence in the United States?
Especially when this comes amidst a period of extended political division and vitriol (as discussed earlier in this essay).
I believe it so. And there shall be severe economic consequences.
The immediate consequence shall be the end of the dollar’s status as a reserve currency. Countries with substantial forex reserves will flush the world market with dollars as they gobble up the substitutes which could range from an assortment of other currencies and hoarding of gold to something radically new (maybe bitcoin?). There may also be a capital flight from the United States.
The low interest rates which allow the United States to borrow extremely high amounts with impunity will drastically rise; and make servicing future deficits unsustainable.
With the collapse of the dollar hegemony, flight of capital and the rise in interest rates, quantitative easing as a tool of Federal Reserve will become untenable without the possibility of severe inflation — for the United States will have to export to import (or borrow), just like all normal countries — instead of using fiat money to import goods and services, and thus export inflation as it currently does.
The resultant economic crisis will bring to fore the great lacuna in American manufacturing that has developed as the East Asian nations — first Japan, then Korea and the Asian tigers and finally China — have hollowed out its manufacturing base.
The economic crisis may manifest itself through hyperinflation, collapse in the dollar value, followed by a depression and at least a temporary collapse in living standards.
Hyperinflation, because the deficits can no long be financed through fiat money (quantitative easing) or cheap debt. As dollar loses reserve status and capital flight occurs within the United States, acute drop in the value of dollar will lead to a collapse in value of the currency. Also, currency devaluation causes imports to become pricey as well (adding to the inflation).
And finally a depression because any resultant cut-back on spending (because borrowing costs are high) will necessarily cut the aggregate demand in the economy. Which in turn shall certainly lead to an increase in unemployment and a fall in the Gross Domestic Product.
The United States may end up like Russia in 1990s or Greece post 2008. A country plagued with a decade-long cycle of austerity, depression and bankruptcy.
Phase 4: Coming Apart
Usually if the American nation were not so divided then perhaps a comeback would have been possible. For instance, after the laying in the fallows of the third world in the 90s, Russia today is a reasonably well-off upper-middle country with an excellent balance sheet. The United States’ own history of battling the Great Depression is testament to the possibility of a spectacular economic revival.
However, the ethnic, cultural and political divisions add complexity to the riddle of whether the United States could bounce back if hit with an economic collapse of immense proportions.
Hardship compels a cohesive nation (as the US was in 1930s) into further unity and resolve — but may undo a nation that is at war with itself. Chronic political division when combined with economic collapse is the recipe for decline.
Against a backdrop of economic collapse and lost international prestige, ethnic and cultural divisions and political polarisation, it is likely that the entire political process and establishment will lose legitimacy in the eyes of the ordinary American.
What follows then? Three possibilities may be considered.
One, a military coup of sorts. Two, internal secessionist movements (ala the civil war). And three, the rise of a totalitarian politics reminiscent of the 20th century fascist and communist movements.
Of these three possibilities, the second — possibility of secessionism and civil war — is the unlikeliest for the simple reason that America today is far too centralised compared to mid-19th century Civil War era. Back then, the United States was largely a union of well-established states held together by a feeble federal government, which in fact did not have the monopoly of either force or currency.
The centralised strength of the federal state in the United States was actually one of the key outcomes of the Civil War. Today, on the other hand, the federal government pervades the day-to-day American life in profound ways — whether it be vast spending programmes such as Social Security and Medicaid or the military or the power of the Federal Reserve Bank to regulate money supply.
Moreover, the real divisions within America are not simply between red states and blue states, but amongst urban and rural regions, men and women, racial minorities and the white majority, and the white working classes and the white professional college-educated technocratic elite. These divisions pervade across states — whether they be red or blue.
The increased ethnic diversity of the American society (largely due to unprecedented immigration) is likely to make the third option an impossibility. Since totalitarian parties succeed only in homogenous states with deep class and ideological divisions. The very presence of substantial ethnic diversity will impede any attempts at a movement geared towards class hatred or ethnic cleansing. The smaller the minority, the easier the ethnic cleansing and vice-versa.
Hence, the most probable scenario is the first option — a military coup led by the ‘deep state’ in collaboration with business and technology interests.
Two conditions are required for any military coup to succeed. As Samuel Huntington wrote in Political Order in Changing Societies, for a military coup to succeed there needs to be a professional standing army; and a total collapse in the ability of democratic norms, actors and institutions in settling disagreements amongst politicised social classes or in getting things done with reasonable competence. Because if the participants do not consider the elections ‘fair’ or cannot agree on a process to decide the winners or cannot fathom the winners getting away with implementing their policies, then might (that is, the army) becomes the only arbiter of politics.
The United States already has the first in the form of a vast military and intelligence apparatus, powered by a $700 billion+ annual budget. It is hurtling slowly towards the second — as has been explained in much of this essay, and bolstered especially by the events of the past five years.
The coup is likely to be in alliance with other powerful interests within the American society — especially the Wall Street, Silicon Valley, other industrial interests and government unions. For the simple reason that lack of rule of law and stability; and excessive politicisation of instruments of state affects business confidence. Purely out of economic self interest, most power brokers of American society will rationalise the need for a coup.
The coup may also have the backing of the ordinary public. If for nothing else, but to bring a semblance of calm, stability and order to routine life amidst the political and economic chaos.
Silicon Valley may provide the tools (since we now know that ‘Big Data’ and technological percolation make for easier control), and the military and intelligence establishment will provide the political will and muscle to bring the country to order.
What the precise direction the United States shall take after the tumultuous events described above is beyond the scope of this essay. Much will depend on the nature of leadership that comes to power and the reactions across the world — especially Western Europe and East Asia — both political and economic.
Perhaps the authoritarian regime could simply created a ‘managed democracy’ — much on the lines of today’s Russia — where excessive freedoms of speech and political activism are curtailed for the sake of stability; and a Putin-like figure maintains peace by a selective throttling of any major opposition.
Or as in the Roman Republic 2 millenia ago, Augustus after bringing an end to the civil wars, managed to retain the façade of republicanism by always speaking in the name of the Senate and the People of Rome. For Augustus, the constitution of Rome never changed, rather he merely abrogated a whole lot of rights that earlier belonged to the SPQR.
In other words, the outward resemblance of the American republic could be maintained, the constitution largely preserved (with valuable amendments); but everything be really managed by a small politburo of highly powerful individuals.
An outcome like the above would ensure that the United States continues as a Great Power, but it will lose the moral high ground that it has commanded as the ‘world’s oldest democracy’.
Alternatively, the coup could be the beginning of an extended period of political instability — something akin to the Crisis of the 3rd Century in Rome — full of counter-coups, and reversals to democracy only to veer back to authoritarianism because American political culture is simply unable to maintain the decorum needed for a democracy to function.
Regardless of the outcome, I consider the conjecture outlined in this entire essay to be eminently probable.