by Akim Reinhardt
It doesn’t take much. A small piece of gravel, spit out by a truck’s wheel, ricochets off the windshield, taking a tiny chip of glass with it. A microscopic divot and discreet little lines, like crow’s feet at the corner of an eye. Barely noticed for months, the accordion of heat and cold compress and expand, adding and relieving pressure. Then finally, the scratches spread out across the glass like an avant garde spider web.
The windshield has not fractured into zagged plates or smashed into a thousand glass pebbles. Perhaps that is its future, but for now it is merely degraded and slightly obscurant. Yet it was never true. Tinted, laminated, curved, and often dirty, the windshield always presented a slightly skewed image of the outside world. Not grotesquely wrong, but fundamentally distorted in minor ways difficult to detect from inside the car. Now, however, the little cracks have suddenly made you aware that the image upon the glass is subtly warped.
As in many countries, if not most, American school children are indoctrinated with nationalistic history that incorporates heroic narratives and stirring interpretations. From kindergarten through high school, state sanctioned curricula present a range of facts and viewpoints that coalesce into what can fairly be called imperial mythology. Most of it is technically correct, but the total image produced is often heavy on the rah-rah and short on critical self-examination. Of course some states are worse than others, and some teachers better than others, but the overall effect across society is consistent.
Adult Americans generally assume that the Revolution was a noble fight for freedom against tyranny; that the founding fathers should by and large be, if not revered, at least deeply respected; that the Civil War was both a tragic struggle among brothers, and a moral crusade for the nation’s soul; that Native Americans generally got screwed; that the Roaring 20s were fun and the Great Depression was tough; that World War II was the great war against fascism; that John Kennedy was good and Richard Nixon bad; that the Civil Rights movement was a great success; and that Vietnam was a mistake because too many Americans died.
And this is among those Americans who have any real historical consciousness. Many have none at all, a sign of both their own and the educational system’s failings.
The distortions in this image are not always easy to discern because they are often subtle and require substantial unpacking. It takes a bit of doing to explain how and why it was that: the British had reasonable expectations that their loyal colonists should payoff a fair share of the national debt they helped create by starting the Seven Years (or French and Indian) War; that many founding fathers were brutal slave owners, most had genocidal attitudes towards American Indians, nearly all of them opposed democracy, all of them disagreed with each other periodically, and absolutely none of them could have ever anticipated a modern America that even by 1900 was so radically different from the original 13 United States that it is folly to imagine what they would think of modern policy issues; that at the outset of the Civil War, the vast majority of Northerners, including Abraham Lincoln, had no intention of trying to end slavery in the South, and that while this had changed by war’s end, even then the majority of Northerners did not want African Americans to have equal rights or receive any compensation for having been slaves; that all Native Americans were eventually subjected to not only ethnic cleansing, but also to 300 years of periodic physical genocide and then another century of wholesale cultural genocide; that the 1920s was a high tide of pseudo-scientific racism and eugenics; that FDR’s New Deal reforms, sometimes by design and sometimes in effect, were plagued by racism and sexism; that some Americans supported fascism before World War II while most of the rest did not want to join the war despite recognizing that fascism was evil, and that when Pearl Harbor finally forced the issue, black troops were still segregated and 110,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up into remote concentration camps; that Kennedy was deeply flawed and Nixon was actually worse than they think; that racism was a national problem, not just a Southern problem, and that for more than half-a-century, a “victory” narrative of Martin Luther King’s pacifist protest movement has given whites cover to pretend that racism isn’t a problem anymore, and insist that blacks are out of line when they loudly state otherwise; that the Vietnam War was a mistake for very many reasons, and that for every one American who died, another 20-25 Vietnamese also died.
Explaining the how and why, and dismantling the imperial mythology woven into our cultural fabric, are not easy because because there’s never just one history. There are many, many histories. Some of them complement each other. Most complicate each other. Many are bound by connections that remain buried or oblique. All of them are plagued by incomplete and highly qualitative data that typically produce more questions than answers. And by definition, because they are in the past and have already happened, no historical subject can be observed directly; all we have are reflections and recounting, and even in recent history, only partial recordings from this or that angle and none of the rest. Nearly every other academic discipline can directly observe its subject, or in the case of certain sciences, at least develop accurate mathematical models and theories to represent them. Historians can do none of this.
For there is nothing to see. Only pictures to draw and stories to tell.
On November 8, 2016, a very large minority of American voters successfully elected Donald Trump president of the United States through the peculiar arithmetic of the Electoral College, one of those relics that some (but not all) of the founding fathers happily created because, among other things, it provides a cushion against democracy.
For many Americans who had voted for other candidates or sat out the election altogether, it was a surprising and worrying turn of events. Some were greatly disturbed by Trump’s overt sexism and nasty racism. Some worried about his obvious mental shortcomings and shocking lack of qualifications. And some fretted over his erratic, selfish, abrasive behavior and obvious but still undiagnosed personality disorders. About a hundred million Americans were aghast.
Somewhere between a third and half of the country looked up and noticed that a teensy chip in the windshield had suddenly splattered into a spot of crow’s feet.
As a historian, I know that it’s much too soon to proclaim Donald Trump’s presidency as the worst ever or even one of the worst, either in toto or at this or that. My ilk will need a couple of decades after he’s done to really get their hands in the mud and sort it out in the larger context of two and a half centuries of American history.
However, as a historian I can recognize that Trump did not emerge mystically from a timeless void; that his malfeasance and shortcomings are not his alone, but all of ours; and that if his presidency does indeed signal a decline in American empire, then that decline actually began long before he fitted the Oval Office for golden drapes.
For this is very much an empire. Not like Rome or China or even Great Britain, really, but rather something of circumstance and its own design. Forged in the late 18th century, rapaciously inflated during the 19th, and blasted across the entire globe during the 20th. It has far more wealth than any prior empire. Infinitely more military strength, too. It directly governs one-third of a continent and its 330,000,000 people, while maintaining unprecedented influence over world’s remaining 7,000,000,000. It has twice beaten back its mighty British overlords, imported and bred millions of African slaves, slaughtered or imprisoned over a million Indigenous people, seized a third of Mexico, bested imperial Spain, utterly vanquished the Nazis and the Empire of Japan, and held the world’s only other nuclear superpower in check while slowly grinding it down into whispers and dust.
The United States bestrides the narrow world like a Colossus, imagining, as any empire does, its own moral rectitude and divine countenance. And after it is gone, humans may never see its likes again. But go it will.
Like any empire, it will continue to trumpet its magnificence even as it slides towards entropy and dissipation. It will probably take a very long time. There are no more Mongol whirlwinds to rain down sudden destruction, likely no black plagues that can’t be stanched with quarantines and medications, probably no sudden collapse in its future. Barring a meteor or some other massive catastrophe that obliterates far more than the United States, this empire will slowly undulate through its long, yawning death throes, insisting all the while that it is vigorous and righteous and deserving of fear, admiration and respect. It will never stop presenting distorted images of itself until it is no more and only historians are left to draw their crude, partial pictures.
You notice them now, but they have always been there. Little chips in the big plate of curved, lightly tinted glass. Lines slowly eking out in new directions like cracks in a fresh ice cube dropped into warm water.
Donald Trump does not ride upon us like a Horseman of the Apocalypse. He is just another angry dad, driving the family station wagon on a long summer vacation, yelling at and playing favorites with the passengers, changing lanes without signaling, ignoring the red dashboard needle slowly drifting towards E, and stubbornly insisting that everyone stare out the window because it’s so beautiful, goddammit.
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com