By now it’s a little cliché to post images of painter Thomas Cole’s five-part series on the rise and fall of empires. But as the news in America reaches crescendo after crescendo of panic, tragedy, and chaos, this British-born, American painter’s work is more relevant than ever. In the early nineteenth century Cole painted a series of five beautiful vignettes, charting the movement of an empire from its beginning in the primitive stage, through the Arcadian and consummation stages, and into the Destruction and Desolation stages. America at that time already seemed to him poised to follow the cresting and plummeting paths of its predecessors: Britain, France, Spain, and of course Rome.
As I type this I sit in quarantine like 300 million of my fellow Americans, discovering that a constitutional crisis looms between the president and the governors of New York and California. The city of New York is swamped with coronavirus and it seems, despite all our best-intended hopes to the contrary, that COVID-19 will not be like a bad flu season. The death toll is nowhere near the Antonine Plague or the Black Death, but nonetheless because it’s increasing at a sufficiently terrifying rate, and spreading enough into the country’s nooks and crannies, we can’t blow off lockdowns and social distancing. Now I can say I know people whose loved ones have died from COVID-19. Its mysteriousness and contagiousness make it just threatening enough that even the most liberty-minded citizen can’t dismiss out of hand emergency constraints.
We find ourselves in that bind Cicero described when he said we can survive neither the disease nor the cure. You don’t shoot a flea with an elephant gun. But the whole world has imposed wildly disproportionate lockdowns, shuttering all businesses, and lapsing into the kind of totalitarianism that George Orwell described in 1984. We have people being arrested for peacefully assembling to protest, policemen reporting to local health authorities the license plate numbers of people who have committed the unpardonable sin of driving to church on Easter Sunday, and the governor of Michigan prohibiting the sale of seeds. Our children have been sent home from school, neighbors are encouraged to report to authorities anyone who walks outside without a face mask, and Dr. Tony Fauci, America’s new Rasputin, is talking about having a national vaccination card that would certify someone’s right to go to work or school.
This is not only scary. This is a telltale sign that one era is ending and another is dawning. America is falling apart. I am no prophet but drawing from what I have studied, I see four possibilities for America’s future. Pick your poison.
With unemployment likely to reach 32% and a hot summer ahead of us, we face future months with large numbers of angry, able-bodied, idle men whose educations and careers have been laid waste because their local, state, and federal leaders made it illegal for them to work. The COVID stimulus, as huge as it was, was not even a band-aid. Everyone knows the bulk of that money is going to corporate subsidies of one kind or another, or it’s being disbursed to large enterprises (banks, non-profits, foundations) that are supposed to distribute relief funds and services to everyday citizens. Nobody is going to hold their breath waiting for Wells Fargo and Chase Manhattan to dish out forgivable loans to the millions of people who can’t pay their mortgages or feed their families.
A revolution in the United States is a distinct possibility. Police departments and reserve units are being decimated by the virus. If we get to the point that the president has to ask Congress permission to deploy military forces at home, the situation will have become so controversial that I suspect many soldiers will refuse to fire upon their own citizens.
This does not look like a very good recipe. America has a lot of guns, a lot of angry people, and a lot of politicians who blithely crushed people’s livelihoods because they couldn’t think of anything else to do with a virus. As the months progress, the virus will eventually spread to a majority of the population and two things will happen. People will realize that the lockdowns didn’t stop the virus from spreading. Then people will realize that the death toll, while tragic, will not be high enough to have justified immobilizing the entire population.
What would an American revolution look like? It won’t look like what happened in 1776 because we aren’t overthrowing a distant monarch and building a whole new republic on the structures left to us by a king. It won’t be orderly. While we will have some intellectuals who might aspire to lead an uprising in the tradition of a John Adams, Patrick Henry, or Thomas Jefferson, today’s America is too chaotic and ideologically scattered for a cadre of leaders to organize something. It will be driven by rage, not so much by an accumulating sense of political frustration; the target of the revolution will be local, state, and federal governments simultaneously.
In other words, if order breaks down and a groundswell forms to smash the government, we are looking at something highly disorganized and unpredictable. It isn’t as if this could not happen here. We had several iterations of street movements from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to right-wing rallies in Portland and Berkeley, in recent history. If you add to that a real sense of desperation and bring in the enormous stockpiles of guns that exist in the US, you are looking at what could be a bloodbath.
The French, Bolshevik, and Philippine revolutions seem like interesting parallels here.
In the case of the French, the financial ruin of the crown led to economic measures that angered many. While the French enlightenment had many great philosophers, most histories I’ve read point to the unemployed lawyers as the command and control of the revolution. One history of the Jacobin clubs indicated that about 3,000 of them existed, largely populated by people who had studied law but could not find work. This second tier of educated people was perhaps not as sophisticated or nuanced as the Rousseaus and Voltaires of the day, but they were literate and articulate enough to mount a media/propaganda campaign that functioned as the nerve center of resistance to the Bourbons. The sheer ferocity of the Jacobins gave them an edge over pro-Catholic reformers or moderate groups like the Girondists. It was the Jacobins who ended up seizing power among the many groups warring with one another–and it was the Jacobins who brought “terrorism” into the world’s lexicon. They instituted the Terror to stamp out any counterrevolutionary movements in the 1790s.
In the ten years between the storming of the Bastille and the rise of Napoleon, the French went through a multitude of confusing putsches, reversals, and counterplots. They executed their monarchs, changed the calendar, placed the church under the strict control of government, got invaded by Austria, had a civil war, and engaged in mass executions by guillotine. All of this happened because the revolution happened in such a whirlwind and no single unifying vision could hold together the many people angry at the government.
I am currently reading an interesting biography of Lenin by Victor Sebestyen. The picture Sebestyen paints of the Russian revolution shares a few things with the French. Sebestyen makes a point to deflate any perceptions of the Bolsheviks as highly disciplined and organized; their taking of the Winter’s Palace succeeded in spite of their own blunders and because World War I had so depressed the country’s men in uniform. In both the French and Russian cases, there were intellectuals who felt the revolution was about their causes and ideological tenets. For the masses it was largely a backlash against their conditions in the hope of something better, without a clear agreement on the ideas fueling them. Middling thought leaders–the Jacobin lawyers, the Russian students at university, and in today’s situation, underemployed academics like me–helped diffuse bits and pieces of a revolutionary ideology to the masses, but the French and Russian revolutions were overthrows of a decrepit government by furious citizens, not necessarily providential institutions of a new political philosophy by citizens who all agreed on a vision.
The Philippine revolution in the 1980s followed a course somewhat like this one. At one point the citizens of the Philippines knew that their dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, had defrauded an election that Cory Aquino should have won. Anger boiled up across the nation until mobs assembled around Malacañang Palace in Manila. En masse soldiers and police simply refused to stop the mobs, until Marcos had to escape the palace. Like the French and Russians, Filipinos overthrew their government in a messy process and the resulting states went through periods of frightening instability.
The French Revolution led to Napoleon, which serves to remind us that sometimes a coup d’état is so messy that any number of black swans might take to flight.
In the United States, a revolution would definitely happen in a hectic and unforeseeable way. The way I picture this is that in some state capital, a rowdy mass forms of people angry about the coronavirus crisis, venting their rage against the governor. If a governor overplays his power and tries to show who’s the boss with an overbearing crackdown, then at some point police or the state national guard refuses to fire on fellow citizens. Like a wave, a mob overtakes the state capital in a fashion similar to the French overtaking the Bastille, the Bolsheviks taking the Winter Palace, or the Filipinos storming Malacañang. Over social media, suddenly a frenzy spreads to other states where the same pattern repeats. Eventually if enough states see these events play out, a stretch of interstate highway might be open for people to take their anger to Washington. The key factor is this: for it to be an overthrow, it must play out such that the police and soldiers refuse to block the mob from rushing forward.
If I had to pick France, Russia, or the Philippines, I think the French Revolution would look most like what would occur in the United States if events here took a revolutionary turn. It would entail massive disarray. Following the takeover of the government a bloodbath would ensue as different factions fight for control. Republicans will say that the overthrow happened because people were angry at the left’s totalitarian reaction to coronavirus. Democrats will say that the overthrow happened because the downtrodden rose up against everything Trump represented. In the discordant chaos following the collapse, these partisan distinctions will matter less and less. The raw energy of Occupy Wall Street/Black Lives Matter will eventually collide with the insistence of the right-wing populist elements who elevated Trump.
This might happen if an election cannot proceed or the results of the election are distrusted by a massive swath of the populace (like in the Philippine scenario). In that case, you might have the people who believe their party’s candidate was robbed rising up to overthrow the other party’s candidate. But probably even that would be too organized a scenario of what would take place in the US. It would likely be bedlam resulting in the sudden, shocking fall of the government and then a mad scramble.
In France, things cascaded after the initial overthrow into an invasion, civil war, the Terror, and Napoleon. If the end result of our coronavirus crisis is the overthrow and collapse of the government, anything–really, anything–could happen. Many people in Paris would have had no way to predict all those radical developments when they first overran the king and queen.
2. Civil War
Civil wars are often closely linked to revolutions. Sometimes one upheaval follows the other. In America’s own history a century did not pass after her revolution before she found herself in a civil war. What distinguishes a civil war, however, is that amid upheaval at least two factions appear with comparable enough strength that their competing desires for political control can only be decided by violent combat. To be a civil war rather than a revolution, usually both factions feel entitled to power and they have developed coherent enough identities for one side to view the other as an enemy.
The American Civil War has fascinated our country ever since it happened, but if the United States descends into another civil war I do not think it will look like the first one that took place between 1861 and 1865. I say this because the states do not break down into differentiated regions as it happened between the North and South. Two camps are clearly visible today, which hate each other enough to shoot at one another: the left and the right. But they are intermingled all throughout the country. Perhaps in New York and California there is enough uniformity that they might be able to engage in civil war as a coherent state actor. But everywhere else, there are liberals and conservatives of various spectrums, which would have to be fighting their neighbors.
The Spanish Civil War is the best parallel to where the United States will be if the coronavirus crisis leads to civil war. In the case of Spain, the Fascists and Socialists were scattered all through the country and the fight for terrain did not break down along geopolitical boundaries. One side would have to be wary of the other side in whatever town they took over. Many Spanish citizens tried to get by as innocent bystanders. Like the USA today, Spain in 1936 had a once glorious history as a world power but struggled in a world where she no longer reigned supreme. When the civil war broke out, countless writers and thinkers from Ernest Hemingway to George Orwell jumped at the chance to get involved. If left and right in the US descend into civil war, you can imagine all the countries overseas picking sides and sending reinforcements.
Here’s the way I would picture a civil war actually resulting from the coronavirus. We have already seen that on the east and west coasts, subgroups of states have formed pacts. California has joined Oregon and Washington to form an alliance, implicitly against Trump, so that they can decide when they will open for business again. A similar pact has formed on the east coast with New York taking the lead. This means, of course, opening their harbors on the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean.
If President Trump declares that business should return to normal on a certain date but the California and New York pacts refuse to go along with that, then we have some dire constitutional conflicts. First of all, the lockdowns are evidently unconstitutional, whether they are imposed by a governor or the president. The Constitution prohibits government from preventing people from attending church, peacefully assembling, or leaving their homes to go to work. The first amendment makes clear that freedom of assembly, free exercise of religion, and right to petition the government are sacrosanct. While the first amendment stipulates that these are prohibitions against the US Congress, the fourteenth amendment stipulates that constitutional rights have to be applied equally across states. Orders to keep people in their homes amount to house arrest without due process. Even if a constitutional argument could be cobbled together by shrewd lawyers, Americans in their heart know that something’s terribly wrong when their governors are forcing them to remain home for months at a time and threatening to prosecute them for walking outside.
Therefore, if the president says, “lift these restrictions,” even if the governors insist that they have say within their states, the president’s order would be affirming the constitutional rights of citizens in all fifty states. If a citizen in California or New York reopened their store and the state police moved to arrest him, then that citizen could cry out to the federal government for protection. This is how the United States flirted with civil strife in the 1950s, because President Eisenhower had to send forces into southern states to defend citizens’ rights to defy state segregation laws.
If Trump sends in forces to California or New York, and either state’s national guard fires back, then we have a Fort Sumpter scenario. It could escalate very quickly. And remember, things could feel far more volatile in two months after a long hot summer. This could happen.
The other way the interstate pacts could lead to civil war has to do with control over ports of entry. The federal government has power over interstate travel and over decisions about international trade. If Trump orders the reopening of international airports or harbors and California or New York send in state troopers (or the state National Guard) to prevent ports from operating, then we have the real possibility of violent conflict.
If violence were to erupt between a state and the president, this would not end as a mere dust-up between one brash commander in chief and a defiant governor. It would metastasize quickly into something like the Spanish Civil War, with people all across the country joining one side of the dispute or the other and acting out with acts of mayhem in their own states. You can picture some state legislatures passing resolutions to support the president or the rebellious governors, then leading to dissident factions within those states rising up against the state legislatures. It would become war of all against all quickly and look like Spain’s famous but discombobulated three-year war.
So many guns circulate in the United States that one can envision the carnage if strife of this kind escalates. Conspiracy theories would race across the internet, and we could see neighborhoods torn apart according to whose side people have taken. I don’t think we’d see secession as we did in the first American Civil War. It would be more urban warfare and guerilla warfare threaded together with vague but not entirely coherent political affiliations.
I have seen writers like Kurt Schlichter joke that the right would definitely win a civil war. I don’t think so. In a frazzled war of the kind I’m describing, neither side would really be able to decide the conflict by taking one particular stronghold. It would be too diffuse. Nothing more than sheer willingness and vehemence would determine the winner. The right, I think, would give up first and let the left take over. Only one segment of the right is highly vocal and dogmatic; the masses of conservatives would probably abandon that segment and choose a calmer apathetic submission to the left. Also, as I will explain below, if international alliances were to come into play, the left would have more global allies to intervene for them.
If we saw a civil war, I could see countries all around the globe jumping in and picking sides. A battle between the American left and right would be too dramatically appealing for the world to avoid it. One could picture, for instance, China, Western Europe, much of the Arab World, Canada, and Mexico sending in reinforcements to aid the left. On the other hand, you might see Russia, Eastern Europe, Brazil, India, and Israel considering aid for Trump’s right wing. In the end, the assistance of close neighbors Canada and Mexico combined with greater foreign aid would probably tip the scales in favor of the left.
If the left won a civil war they would of course be insufferable. The country would become Hell on earth.
3. A Failed State
If you have read up until this point and said this whole post is total garbage, that’s probably because you have noticed that Americans seem too apathetic to be involved in revolution or civil war. I think #1 and #2 are possible but they are not as likely as the third and fourth possibilities.
The third possibility is that the United States becomes a failed state. Three examples of this come to mind: Rome after Justinian, the Holy Roman Empire during the middle ages, or more recently, the USSR. We have seen in history certain points where a nation unravels into a decentralized collection of territories that have no viable rule of law or clear means of ensuring transfer of power.
In the book The Fate of Rome, Kyle Harper strongly emphasizes the role played by three plagues and a volcanic eruption in dooming the western Caesars. Harper resists the moral interpretation of the fall of Rome popularized by Gibbon. America’s current situation gives us the occasion for both perspectives to hold: a great empire can disintegrate because of natural causes and widespread moral confusion simultaneously.
We Americans are proud of living in a Republic. But look at the land mass we occupy from sea to sea. We are big enough, complicated enough, rich enough, and melodramatic enough to call ourselves an empire already. We don’t have all the political elements of a post-Republic Roman Empire, but we are simply too huge and populous to believe ourselves immune to the problems empires have historically encountered. Perhaps in hundreds of years schoolchildren will learn about the American Empire and they’ll be talking about the fifty states and Puerto Rico.
Justinian came to power in sixth-century Rome like a burst of hope after the city had been sacked. He accomplished wonders by compiling Roman law into a massive compendium. But by the end of the sixth century, without a civil war or revolution, the western Roman empire just decomposed. The army was depleted, the plague killed off so many people that affairs could not function, and basic order broke down. People came to accept from life that they lived in towns and estates that only belonged to a political state in theory. Even the use of currency fell out of fashion. Having watched half of the people they knew die in the plague, they were shocked into a new way of life utterly inferior to the Roman life of a century earlier. They dealt with brigands, looters, and common thieves. But they settled into life in a failed state; this is a life lived one day at a time, with highly local focus, no confidence in any overarching power to protect people, where local warlords and/or self-sufficiency become paramount to having any sustainable family life.
When I taught the medieval seminar to my students I asked them to think of gangster culture to understand the world of Beowulf. The time after Rome’s fall gave star billing to the strongman, the tough guy who could protect people in exchange for their agreement to play by his rules. It is a world in which one must make peace with the smallness of one’s life possibilities and the total unpredictability of tomorrow.
Charlemagne gets credit for bringing a sense of overarching structure to Europe again. Yet even after him, for most of the millennium between 1000 and 2000, the “Holy Roman Empire” acted like a failed state as well. What is now Germany and Italy straggled along as hundreds, even thousands of small political units, mostly unstable and lacking in a uniform or consistent set of laws. Some say that the Treaty of Westphalia changed that by bringing to this disorderly region a reassurance that order was possible and some political entities existed, somewhere out there, that you could turn to in need of help.
In our own day, failed states like Afghanistan, Sudan, or at one time Lebanon, are tied intricately to the experience of extreme poverty amid a world of increasing wealth. That makes these contemporary examples less suitable than the examples of Rome after Justinian or the Holy Roman Empire.
In the American context you could see how we’d become a failed state. If the lockdowns end and so many people have been jolted out of the life they understood that nobody even trusts in the government anymore, you could imagine a slow descent into something we might call the “complacent chaos” of the failed state. If the US runs out of money and a Second Great Depression makes it impossible for states to operate police departments, schools, the post office, or infrastructure, then what will become of the courts? The jails? Registration offices? We’re feeling a tiny taste of that now as so many things are closed and we are suddenly unable to rely on any system beyond the basics. If that intensifies you might drift into failed-state territory.
If the United States turns into a failed state, there would probably be nobody to come to our rescue from abroad. We are the wealthy nation that bailed everyone else out. Nobody has enough money to come here to set things right.
Perhaps the final blow to us would be the point where the satellites can’t function and the government is so disjointed that they can no longer fix the basic structures necessary for the internet. The day the internet and our cell phones stop working, we will be in the dark bubble like the Romans in Spain or Gaul around the year 600. We would end up living in a strange Arthurian reality like the kind that Twain satirized in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
I actually would bet on the US becoming a failed state rather than falling into civil war or a revolution. The kind of exhausted and anesthetized apathy that holds sway in America would push toward a daily numbness appropriate to living in a country where everything just broke down and nobody can fix it. Once the gas stations close we’ll have to learn how to get around on bicycles again and barter in the farmer’s market.
4. An undemocratic dictatorship in disguise
Both Athens and Rome went through periods when their models for popular rule drifted into the very thing they didn’t want, a despotic oligarchy. In the case of Athens, a tyrant named Pisistratus overthrew the Athenian democracy in the sixth century BC. In the case of Rome, even during the Republican era a man named Sulla, who had been labeled an enemy of the state, got himself declared dictator without a time limit.
In the scenarios of Pisistratus and Sulla, a state that had defined itself against monarchy and/or tyranny put a tyrant in power because turmoil left the people no other acceptable option. The good news for us is that Pisistratus and Sulla both did things to reform the government and ended up not killing democracy or republicanism altogether. The bad news for us is that small things in history might have gone a little differently and both states could have plausibly ended up with dictatorships. Some would argue that a version of this happened in both: Athens was eventually gobbled up by Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great. Rome became an Empire only four decades after Sulla’s dictatorship.
These two examples probably look most like what could happen in the United States. In Athens and in Rome, popular affinity for the government was so strong that dictators had to disguise their authoritarian maneuver in the language of the system. They had to present themselves as people reforming, rather than obliterating, democracy or the Republic. While this may have involved some hypocrisy, it had one upside: the system didn’t die out entirely.
The downside is that people lost far more freedom than they were willing to admit to themselves.
In the United States we could have a situation where one oligarchy, one elite coterie of manipulative powerbrokers, takes over the government and deprives us of our freedoms while seeking to convince us that they are protecting the people and keeping freedom alive.
In this likeliest of scenarios, we continue to have elections but everyone knows they are rigged. We have a constitution that everyone praises but nobody follows. We live with propaganda and secret police but we carry on as if everything is okay. We plod forward, day to day, knowing that the country we loved is no more than a dream. It would be a little like Winston Smith in 1984, but with more of a national character.
I can see #4 happening but then segueing eventually into 1, 2, or 3.
One thing I can say about our future–it will not be the way things were before. It will be one of these four fates. And America really will have ended as we used to know it.