Leftovers of the American Century

Image by Elvert Barnes.

Let one old man deal with two others.

I turn 80 in July, which makes me just over a year-and-a-half younger than Joe Biden and almost two years older than Donald Trump. And, honestly, I know my limits. Yes, I still walk — no small thing — six miles a day. And I work constantly. But I’m also aware that, on my second walk of the day and then as night approaches, I feel significantly more tired than I once did. I’m also aware that my brain, still active indeed, does forget more than it once did. And all of this is painfully normal. Nothing to be ashamed of, nothing whatsoever.

I also know from older friends that we humans can still be distinctly functional, thoughtful, and capable at age 82 (when Donald Trump would leave his second term in office) or even 86 (when Joe Biden would do the same). But honestly, what are the odds? I’ll tell you one thing that couldn’t be more obvious — not as good as for someone who’s, say, 55 or 60 years old, that’s for sure. Yes, there’s also the reputed wisdom of old age — and it might indeed make Joe Biden a more thoughtful president, were he to get a second term; Donald Trump, of course, would be Donald Trump, at 60 or 82.

And I have little doubt that, whatever age you are, you’ve been thinking somewhat similar thoughts. I mean, doesn’t the very possibility of watching a televised debate between the two of them make you anxious? After all, the oldest president to previously leave office was Ronald Reagan at 77 (and by then he may have had dementia). Before him, the oldest was Dwight D. Eisenhower who ended his second term in 1961 at 70 years old, having had a heart attack while in office. Third comes William Henry Harrison, who entered the White House in 1841 at age 68 and died, possibly of pneumonia, 32 days later.  Now, it’s also a fact that we Americans are generally lasting longer than once upon a time. But is that really where you want to put your political money? I doubt it.

Still, all of the above is too obvious to belabor, so here’s a question: Are there any other implications we can draw from the upcoming battle between those two old men that’s going to grab our attention and steal the headlines for all too many months to come? The answer, I suspect, is yes. Sometimes in our world, the symbolic is all too subtle, but every now and then it impolitely smacks you in the face. And at least as far as I’m concerned, the second Biden-Trump election campaign should more than qualify in that regard.

I mean, the country that still passes for the greatest power on Planet Earth is going to set a limping age record for president, no matter who wins, leaving China’s Xi Jinping, now 70, and Russia’s Vladmir Putin, now 71, as relative youths in an all-American world of absolute ancientness. And that should certainly tell you something about the state of our country and this planet, too.

To be a little clearer about just what, let me add one more factor to the equation. Joe Biden and Donald Trump are preparing a fight to the wire to lead an America that, not so many decades ago, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, was considered the “sole superpower” on planet Earth. Doesn’t that tell you something?

I think it does. I think, quite bluntly (though I’ve seen no one discussing this amid the endless media headlines and chatter about Trump and Biden), that those two old codgers offer a stunning image of the all-too-literal decline and fall of — yes! — the United States. They should make us consider where the country that still likes to think of itself as the singularly most powerful and influential one on this planet is really heading.

A World Without Peace Dividends

As you might imagine, there’s a prehistory to all of this. George H. W. Bush, president at the moment when the Soviet Union went down in 1991, had that very year ordered the U.S. military to launch Operation Desert Storm, which drove Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait. In its own fashion, it also launched what would, in the century that followed, become a set of American military operations around the globe. At the same time, with Russia in tatters and China still a modestly rising power — with, that is, no true great-power enemies left on Planet Earth — that sole superpower would do something rather surprising. It would continue to pour ever more taxpayer dollars into the U.S. military-industrial complex. Yes, there was talk then about a “peace dividend” for this country and its people, but none ever arrived.

Thirty-two years later, the Pentagon budget has almost hit the trillion-dollar mark annually, while the overall national “security” (yes, it’s still called that!) budget long ago soared well above the trillion-dollar mark. Meanwhile, in this century, George H. W. Bush’s son, elected president in November 2000, would the following September respond to the 9/11 attacks, planned and carried out by Osama bin Laden and his small terror group, al-Qaeda, by launching what quickly came to be known as “the Global War on Terror.” And all too global it would be with the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. It would also prove a disaster of the first order for the last superpower, whose military would leave literally millions dead across the planet, destroy countries, decimate economies, and create tens of millions of refugees, while costing this country a staggering $8 trillion and counting as, over more than 20 years, the U.S. military lost wars, while terrorism as a phenomenon only grew.

Yes, in May 2011, Osama bin Laden would be killed in Pakistan by a team of U.S. Navy Seals. Still, were he alive today, I suspect he would be pleased indeed. With next to nothing other than his personal wealth, a small crew of followers, and some hijacked airplanes, he managed to outmaneuver and outplay what was then the greatest power on Planet Earth. Thanks to the slaughter of several thousand Americans in New York and Washington, he also managed to draw this country into an endless war against “terrorism” and, in the process, turn it into an increasingly terrorized country, whose inhabitants are now, however symbolically (and, in the future, possibly far more literally), at each other’s throats.

In some eerie fashion, both former President Trump and President Biden might be considered creations of al-Qaeda. And so might the country itself today. I mean, could an American of 1991 ever have imagined that, in 2024, polls would show the urge for violence against fellow Americans reaching eerie highs here? Meanwhile, approximately one in 20 of us is now armed with a military-style AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Even young people can now possess a JR-15 (for “junior”) child’s version of such weaponry that’s all too deadly.

Perhaps not surprisingly, AR-15s have proven the weapon of choice in the worst of the mass killings that have become commonplace in this country and, in recent years, have been distinctly on the rise. They could indeed be considered “terrorist” activities, involving as they do the repeated deaths of startling numbers of us. And all of this is happening without an American-style al-Qaeda yet truly in sight. Mind you, there are now an estimated almost 400 million weapons of various kinds in the possession of American civilians, a stunning arsenal for any country, no less one increasingly divided against itself. Meanwhile, according to a recent NPR/News Hour/Marist poll, 3 in 10 Republicans (or 20 million of us) claim that “Americans may have to resort to violence to set things straight” in this country, while, on the right, militarized terror-style groups are ever more the order of the day.

Consider that a brief summary of the increasingly divided and divisive American society over which those two old men are now fighting, a domestic world that could, in the end, rip apart whatever fantasies our leaders may still have about American power on this planet.

Coming Apart at the Seams?

As was true of the Soviet Union until almost the moment it collapsed in a heap, the U.S. still appears to be an imperial power of the first order. It has perhaps 750 military bases scattered around the globe and continues to act like a power of one on a planet that itself seems distinctly in crisis. It also continues to organize for a new Cold (verging on Hot) War with China in the Pacific. That explains President Biden’s recent highly publicized “summit” in Washington with the prime minister of Japan and the president of the Philippines, just as it explains the way U.S. special operations forces have only recently been “permanently” assigned to an island only a few kilometers off China’s coast. Yes, as that recent meeting with the Japanese and Filipino leaders and those commandos suggest, the Biden administration is still dealing with China in particular as if this were indeed a Cold War moment, and the sort of “containment” of a communist country the president grew up with was still the order of the day for the globe’s greatest power.

Unfortunately, that’s truly an old man’s version of the world we now live in. I’m thinking about the planet which, each month, sets a new heat record and where, despite much talk about cutting fossil fuels, the U.S. in 2023 produced more oil (13.5 million barrels a day) than at any time in its history, while China’s coal-power capacity grew more rapidly than ever. And that’s just to start down a list of fossil-fuelized bad news. On a planet that itself looks as if it might be going to hell, amid record heatfiresstorms, and the like, the urge to put such effort into organizing alliances of nations in the Pacific (led by Washington, of course) to “contain” China in an ever more warlike fashion represents, it seems to me, folly of the first order.

It’s increasingly an illusion (or do I mean delusion?) that this country has any sort of genuine control over the rest of the planet (no less itself). And today — with those two old men, one of whom is also bizarre beyond compare, wrestling each other for the presidency — this country is threatening in its own odd fashion, like the USSR in 1991, to come apart at the seams.

It’s strange to think about just how distant the America I grew up in — the one that emerged from World War II as the global powerhouse — now seems. If you had told anyone then that more than three-quarters of a century later, there would be well-armed private militias forming in a country armed to the teeth with military-style weaponry or that one presidential candidate would already be hinting at calling out the military to subdue his opponents if he ends up back in the White House, who would have believed you? It wouldn’t have even seemed like convincing science fiction.

And yet today, the greatest country on Earth (or so its leaders still like to believe), the one that continues to pour taxpayer dollars into a military funded like no other, or even combination of others, the one that has been unable to win any war of significance since 1945, seems to be threatening to come apart at the seams. Yes, this presidential campaign could turn out to be about the decline and fall of it all — and, of course, if Donald Trump (“drill, drill, drill“) ends up back in the White House that decline and fall could happen in a fashion almost beyond imagining.

The once-lone superpower, and now perhaps the loneliest power of all, could even be heading for previously unimaginable autocratic waters or who knows what else? If only it were otherwise, but unfortunately, in the months to come, we’ll be watching as an all-American world possibly spins slowly out of control, while the leftovers of the American Century fight it out in a country where all too many of us seem focused on anything but what matters.

As one old man to two others, if only you could stand down, we could face the world we’re actually in before it becomes too late.

This piece first appeared on TomDispatch.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.