‘He is the instigator of nothing’

Tom Engelhardt, A Nation Unmade by War

Haymarket, 180pp, £18.99, ISBN 97816084690179

reviewed by David Renton

In a recent issue of the London Review of Books, the historian of popular reactions to British Empire Linda Colley observed that political systems can often be strengthened by military victories. Since the drafting of the American constitution in 1787, she continued, the United States has enjoyed martial success, from the expansionist wars against native Americans and against Mexico to victories in colonial wars and in the two world wars. Even defeat in Vietnam was mitigated by the 8,000 miles that separate Washington from Saigon. The effect of victory, she suggested, had been to protect America’s constitutional arrangements from criticism. Perhaps there had been too much stability, a point Colley developed in her second example, Britain. Another serial military victor, Britain’s constitution has recently been crumbling under the pressures of devolution and Brexit. Colley’s paper was delivered as a public talk and released by the LRB as a podcast; in its original form, the historian’s tone was wry, questioning and surprisingly upbeat.

The message of Tom Engelhardt’s book, which began life as a series of blog posts written in 2016 and 2017, is less cheerful. In his account, the expansion of US military power since the fall of Saigon has seen the corruption of American institutions; perhaps even the betrayal of the American soul. In the 17 years since 9/11, Engelhardt points out, the total cost of US military action has been $5.6 trillion, or more per person than the average taxpayer earns in a year. All that spending has not made the US happier or more free. Rather the expansion of military power has ‘warped . . . our democratic forms of governance.’ It has ‘eviscerated . . . representative democracy.’

A key moment in Engelhardt’s account is the 2010 decision of the Supreme Court in Citizens United, which ‘green-lighted he flooding of American politics with the dollars of the ultra-wealthy . . . in amounts that boggle the imagination.’ Reading his book, I thought of two statistics, both of which corroborate his broad account: in American Congressional and Presidential candidates the top-spending candidate now has a success rate of 95 percent. The average successful member of Congress outspends the average British MP in their respective elections, by a factor of more than 100 to one. This is why there are so many millionaires in Congress and in senior roles in the executive: because they spend more than anyone else and because they have the contacts to raise the necessary millions. Many of the steps that created this oligarchy precede Trump’s election. But since 2016, Trump has been able to stack the Supreme Court even further to the right with the appointment of Justices Neil Gorusch and Brett Kavanaugh.

American moral decline has been most apparent beyond her borders, Engelhardt writes. US drone have killed thousands of civilians without halting the advance of Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan. America spends more on its military than the next seven military powers combined. Yet in its foreign policy the United States is capable of only destruction:

‘Just look at photos of the cities of Ramadi or Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa or Aleppo in Syria, Sirte in Libya . . . Those views of mile upon mile of rubble, often without a building still standing untouched, should take anyone’s breath away.’ Belligerence has been accompanied by an inadequate political strategy incapable of reasoning beyond permanent war, beyond ‘more air power in skies, more boots on the ground, more private contractors . . . Never has a great power still in its imperial prime proven quite so incapable of applying its military and political might in a way that would advance its aims.’

The negative inspiration of Engelhardt’s book is President Trump, whose election he blames on a combination of Trump’s skill and the need for cable television to promote facile, incendiary clips, as a strategy to bring in advertising revenue. ‘For more than a year, he was the news cycle, essentially the only one, morning, no one and night, day after day, week after week, month after month.’ (Trump’s presence on the nation’s TV screens has hardly diminished in the two years since those words were written). Engelhardt sees Trump as an amalgam of two archetypal figures: the Al Capone-type huckster and the dysfunctional salesman in the mould of PT Barnum or Willy Loman.

Engelhardt is hardly unique in predicting that Trump’s regime will degenerate into a family kleptocracy. Where he takes the argument further is in his confidence that Trump’s ascendancy will lead to violence. A postscript written from 2025 imagines American power presiding over the destruction of the former nations of Syria and Iraq, and carnage in fourteen other countries. Another chapter makes an oddly specific but memorable prediction that at some point between now and the 2020 election, Trump will take to Twitter to denounce some private citizen who irks him and that one of Trump’s alt-right supporters will hunt down this critic and kill them, in a presidential Twitter hit-job. Elsewhere Engelhardt admits his disbelief that the American people could have elected a candidate this rancorous.

‘Somewhere deep inside, I simply didn’t believe that, of all the countries on this planet, the United States would elect a narcissistic celeb billionaire. . . . it turned out that like Trump, I too, was an American exceptionalist. I deeply believed that our country was simply too special for The Donald.’

The theme of A Nation Unmade by War is that Trump belongs to an epoch of the decline of US power, just as the failing Roman empire produced Nero and Caligula. Engelhardt illustrates his thesis by observing the preponderance of military figures in the higher echelons of the Trump regime (Michael Flynn, HR McMaster). Indeed the only demographic which seriously competes with them are Trump’s fellow billionaires. Trump is only the inheritor, Engelhardt argued, of four decades of malign change: ‘He is the instigator of nothing.’ Engelhardt lists the generals who have shrilled for Trump, and insists that ‘it’s time to call them what they truly are: Nixon’s children.’

At the end of A Nation Unmade by War, it is worth asking how much of Engelhardt's account is accurate. One counterpart to Engelhardt’s book is Kathleen Belew’s recently published Bringing the War Home, a history of the American alt-right before it had its present name. Her account, like Engelhardt’s, begins with the Vietnam War. For Belew the greatest continuity is not so much at the top of society but down below, where a generation of white supremacists led the movement from the fall of Saigon through to the 1995 Oklahoma bombing and beyond, fuelled by a sense of grievance about the war’s end, and equipped with discipline, clarity and habits of obedience learned in khaki.

There have, on the other hand, been many authoritarians in US history, and in place of the brown thread with which Engelhardt links Nixon/Kissinger to Trump, we could just as easily see the American President as the successor to Andrew Jackson, the general and slave plantation owner who founded the Democratic Party on its initial programme of the defence of slavery, or the Klan of the 1920s or George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama who vowed to uphold ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’. In this alternative way of seeing the current President, the clearest continuity would be Trump’s domestic policies of racial hierarchy rather than his global politics of conquest.

A Nation Unmade by War offers no clear guidance as to how the US left should relate to the Democrats. The second party of American government appears in two guises in these pages. The Democrats are presented at times as an equal partner in the long march of American politics to the right. They have been no less bellicose, Engelhardt acknowledges, no less subservient to US imperial power than the Republicans. Nor does he portray them as in any sense an alternative to the politics of Citizens United. In the 2016 Presidential election, after all, the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton spent more money even than Donald Trump. On the other hand, Engelhardt seems to portray the Democrats as in some sense the victims of the growing authority of corporate power. He speaks of ‘the coming of the one-party state,’ as if the next step must inevitably be a single-party dictatorship. Overall, the Democratic Party seem to stand at 90 degrees to this wretched future, neither being for dictatorship nor capable of directly opposing it. ‘Until [2016] that party was at least a large, functioning political bureaucracy. Today, no one knows quite what it is.’

Is Bernie Sanders the most credible electoral alternative to Trump? Or is it Chelsea Clinton, or another member of the party’s predominant centrist wing? The young will have to decide, as will the victims of rampant climate change, of sexism and of presidentially-sanctioned racist violence. Get that choice wrong, and the rest of the world may be suffering for decades to come.