Trump’s Budget Is American Caesarism
On militarism, exhaustion, and decadence.
President Donald Trump’s new budget has been faulted for craven cuts to a raft of health care and civil society programs that taken together literally help provide for the general welfare of the citizenry. But it also seeks to raise the Defense Department’s budget by 10 percent, and that of the Department of Homeland Security by almost 7 percent, while cutting the State Department by 29 percent and eliminating funding for such estimable institutions as the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP) and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. These proposals in and of themselves signify cultural and political decline by any historical measure.
The rise of the military, if coupled with the undermining of civilian aspects of national power, demonstrates a spiritual exhaustion and a descent into Caesarism. Named after Julius Caesar — who replaced the Roman Republic with a dictatorship — Caesarism is roughly characterized by a charismatic strongman, popular with the masses, whose rule culminates in an exaggerated role for the military. America is moving in this direction.
It isn’t that some civilian agencies don’t deserve paring down or even elimination, nor is it that the military and other security forces don’t deserve a boost to their financial resources. Rather, it is in the very logic, ideology, and lack of proportionality of Trump’s budget that American decline, decadence, and Caesarism are so apparent.
The United States, while not a formal empire, has been in an imperial-like situation since the end of World War II, when America began to construct a liberal world order in Europe and Asia. That world order has been characterized — like Rome, Venice, Britain, and France at their zeniths — by a dynamic combination of military, intellectual, economic, and cultural power. Each element is as important as the others.
Cold War America boasted the United States Information Agency and the U.S. Agency of International Development to project its liberal and economic values, just as Rome spread Latin, built roads, and granted citizenship to the elites of distant lands to promote its values. Venice had its explorers and merchants augment its navy; Britain sponsored a whole class of linguists and area experts to extend its colonial ambitions; and France emphasized the teaching of the French language among peoples in the developing world. Rome began to decline when the empire gradually became top-heavy with a military armature at the expense of a civilizing mission. The balance between diplomatic and military elements allowed these empires to survive as long as they did, until exhaustion, often brought about by war and their own misrule, set in.
In the modern era of the U.S. quasi-imperial experiment, the State Department, USIP, and the Wilson Center have been vital foundations of national power designed to project our values for generations. This is now ending. For example, Trump wants to increase the size of the Navy to more than 350 ships from its current total of about 275 ships. But a principal role of the Navy, by virtue of its deployment patterns, is to enhance the influence of American diplomacy. That’s why a weaker State Department works to undermine the effect of a stronger Navy. As for USIP, it took on its bureaucratic personality during the Ronald Reagan administration, when it was forged into an engine of area expertise and conflict resolution built on sturdily realist internationalist principles. The Wilson Center does for America something vaguely similar to what the granting of citizenship to foreign elites did for Rome — it brings some of the finest minds from all over the country and parts of the world together to study American foreign policy, thus familiarizing themselves with Washington and thereby improving relationships among countries. It is a subtle and indirect process. But put that all together with our diplomatic and military reach, and you start to have the basis of a benign form of American influence worldwide.
No one of these pillars can stand on its own, obviously. The military, absent these other elements, acquires a different, bleaker personality. A domineering American military, shorn of an equally effective diplomatic service and lacking cultural outreach, is itself undermined as a moral force. And without that, alliances — built on a shared liberal vision — become harder to maintain. The difference between alliance building and outright hegemony can be a fine one. All this affects the morale of the armed services for the worse. By drastically cutting or eliminating some of the main civilian elements of American power, Trump is redefining the military in a way that should make the Pentagon brass uncomfortable.
Decadence is cultural and moral decline joined with materialistic indulgence. A president who doesn’t really read, who engages regularly in flagrant untruths, who rules through his family — which, in turn, engages in conflicts of interest that no one in the bureaucracy would be allowed to get away with — and who favors the glitz and gold trappings of Manhattan and Palm Beach to the exclusion of the spare and subdued environment of Camp David is a decadent leader. When such a leader raises the military to cult status, rather than preserving it as a prime tool of American power — in conjunction with other vital components — he simulates the values of an autocrat, not those of a democrat.
The Republicans have gone from being the party of Reagan to the party of Trump. The former was a conservative internationalist; the latter is a populist nationalist. The former represented national revival, the latter national decline. For rise and decline hinge on universal moral factors even more than they do on political and economic ones. And the president’s budget proposal could be a pivot point in this tragic process.
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