The spectacle of the Trump administration’s ongoing follies has got me thinking about a pair of books by the American writer Morris Berman, Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire (2006) and The Twilight of American Culture (2000). When I first read them years ago, I thought some of Berman’s pessimism was overstated – now I’m not so sure. In 2017, his pronouncement in Dark Ages America that, “As for the United States, all that awaits it on the domestic front is bankruptcy and popular disaffection; internationally speaking, we’ll be looking at second- or third-rate status by 2040, if not before,” sounds almost prescient. What did he uniquely perceive then that’s since become obvious to many of us?
It’s true that Berman writes from what’s clearly a leftist perspective, the same one which drove the student protests of the 1960s and maybe even the fictional portraits of Sinclair Lewis (Main Street) and John Dos Passos (the USA trilogy) in the 1920s and 1930s. Both Twilight and Dark Ages make very broad critiques of US decline from the author’s very private experiences, such as his frustrations trying to teach barely literate high school students and, oddly, his new neighbor’s wary reaction when he welcomed her with a plate of homemade cookies. Published during the George W. Bush presidency, Dark Ages America cited as evidence the restriction of civil liberties post 9/11, a cheerleading, dumbed-down corporate media, massive national and personal indebtedness, a crumbling wall between church and state, and foreign disasters in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo, but Berman added more original insights which could apply to other countries beside the US: public addiction to technology like laptops and cell phones, a nexus of cars, suburbs, and oil dependency, and unprecedented levels of mass ignorance and incivility. This terminal decay, according to him, originated in America’s victory in World War II, the repeal of the Bretton Woods Agreement (which applied regulatory brakes to international capitalism) in 1971, and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Now look. The American president is a reality television celebrity with no experience in government, whose emotional impulses and intellectual limitations mark him as by some measure the least capable and most dangerous leader in the nation’s history. He and key members of his team are enmeshed in suspicions they colluded with an outside power to achieve electoral victory. The US Congress is split along rigid party lines, preventing the passage of meaningful legislation and the realization of any bipartisan policy aims. Egged on by the glut of electronic opinion and invective afforded by modern media, many Americans love their country only a little more devoutly than they loathe forty or fifty percent of the other citizens they have to share it with. Worldwide, many erstwhile US allies in Canada, Europe, and elsewhere, are quietly planning adjustments to a global order no longer anchored by American economic and military power. Such trends may have taken hold sooner or later, but their entrenchment has accelerated since the rise of Donald Trump. In assessing the United States today, terms like “twilight” and “Dark Age” are not too strong.
If there is anything undermining Berman’s dire prophecies, it is his own apparent satisfaction at their fulfillment, which will make viable “long-term study and thought, in an effort to come up with a serious alternative to global bourgeois democracy.” Like many progressives, too, he is less interested in solving problems than admiring himself for his independence in detecting them. “And what about the very small percentage of Americans who see through the charade?” he asked of Bush’s War on Terror. “From our vantage point, the distinction between red and blue states doesn’t mean very much, because John Kerry’s election would not have altered the nation’s course.” For a less smug forecast, consider Robert Kaplan’s An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America’s Future (1998), which appraised some of the same socio-political symptoms as Berman but offered a different prognosis: “[I]f we can pass out of our history slowly and gracefully, carrying on a global struggle for human rights and economic opportunity (backed up by military force), until an authentic planetary civil society comes along, America will have accomplished more than it ever did in the Homeric Age of the Civil War, World War II and the Cold War combined.” How hopeful Kaplan’s vision felt then, and, for all his self-congratulation, how imminent Berman’s feels today.