In the 1830s, the English-born American artist Thomas Cole painted an ambitious sequence of five large rectangular canvases delineating “The Course of Empire.” He began with “The Savage State,” which depicts the rude life of humans before the advent of letters, domestication and permanent architecture. “The Arcadian or Pastoral State” is marked by harmony and some early accoutrements of civilization. “The Consummation of Empire,” at fifty-one inches by seventy-six inches, is a third larger than its fellows. Here we see a sun-drenched landscape transformed by a panoply of classical architecture counterpointed by bustling commerce and a triumphal, if overripe, stateliness. Next comes “Destruction.” The skies are dark now, the people besieged by ravening hordes, the monuments broken and burning. A distant full moon presides over “Desolation,” the last canvas. The scene is populated by shaggy, shattered remnants of human ingenuity, vast blighted columns and porticos half overgrown by vegetation, not a human soul in sight. Ozymandias would be at home.
I have thought often about Cole’s painted morality tale these past months. Where do you suppose we are on the itinerary he traced? I’d say somewhere between “Consummation” and “Destruction.” Is the process inevitable, as Cole seems to have believed? There are heartening signs to suggest not.
Unfortunately, few of those signs are patent in the United States at the moment.
But just look at Argentina. As I write, Javier Milei, the new “anarcho-capitalist” president of Argentina, has embarked in earnest on a regimen of “shock therapy” for his troubled country. You think we have runaway inflation in the US? Well, we do. But it will soon be nearly 200 percent in Argentina.
Milei had barely taken office in December before he cut the government payroll by 5,000 jobs. He has abolished whole departments. He introduced a law legalizing the use of force for self-defense and decreed that welfare benefits would be stripped from anyone blocking traffic while protesting in the streets. He also banned the use of the word “free” to describe government largesse since the services are not “free.” On the contrary, they are paid for by the taxpayer. One commentator described this as “the most sensible law in world history.” Were it implemented in America, he noted, “the Democrat Party would literally not be able to campaign anymore.” Don’t hold your breath, though. Magical thinking obviates a multitude of unpalatable realities.
Lamenting “the hard decisions that will need to be made in coming weeks,” Milei told his supporters that “the goal is [to] start on the road to rebuilding our country, return freedom and autonomy to individuals and start to transform the enormous amount of regulations that have blocked, stalled and stopped economic growth.”
Instead of such frank acknowledgment and robust action, Joe Biden and his minders have retreated into Stalinist Newspeak. Everyone knows that civil society is frayed and tearing apart in America. Inflation and high interest rates are eating away at middle-class prosperity. The Southern border is a sort of Potemkin facsimile. Violent crime is out of control. The imperatives of woke ideology have undermined trust in our defining institutions from education and the media to churches and the military.
Joe Biden’s ostrich response is to insist that the media start reporting on the economy “the right way,” i.e., in a way that reflects well, if untruthfully, on the Biden administration. Pravda used to do the same thing. Most economists are predicting that the US economy will enter recession this year. But that unpleasant news is at odds with the happy pink unicorn tale that the Biden administration requires.
Meanwhile, Biden is also keen that Donald Trump be dealt with “the right way,” i.e., in a way that keeps him off the ballot. Otherwise, you see, people might vote for him, he might win, and therefore (therefore!) “Our Democracy™” might be undermined. The strategies are many. As I write, Trump faces more than ninety counts in lawfare cases in four separate persecutions, er, prosecutions.
The latest wheeze is for various states to declare that he cannot be on the ballot because of “his role” in the January 6 “insurrection.” The rationale was put forward in the third section of the Fourteenth Amendment, an 1868 post-Civil War instrument which excluded anyone who had “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against [the US government].” The clause was designed to prevent Confederate rebels who had served in the US government from holding office. But that origin was no impediment to its being twisted into service to harass Donald Trump.
In December, the Colorado Supreme Court was the first entity to rule that Trump was ineligible to appear on the state ballot. That bizarre attack on democracy — not to be confused with “Our Democracy™” — instantly elicited some portion of the contempt and ridicule it deserved. As was pointed out at the time, all seven members of the court are Democrats. But the four members who voted to exclude him from the ballot were Ivy-educated. The rest went to state schools. A few days after the ruling was announced, the Colorado secretary of state intervened to put Trump back on the ballot while appeals are pending.
The herd mentality took hold as if it were a Covid emergency. Next up was Shenna Bellows, Maine secretary of state, who excluded Trump from the ballot because of “his role in the January 6 attack on the Capitol.” Two questions: was J6 an “insurrection?” Answer: no. What was Donald Trump’s “role” in the events of that day? To urge his followers to proceed peacefully and eschew violence.
That contravenes The Narrative, however. It is characteristic of the movement from the late stages of the Consummation of Empire to its destruction that truth be sacrificed to ideology. That’s where we are now. Which is why a columnist for Spiked denominated 2023 as “the year America became a banana republic.”
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2024 World edition.