Argument

Why Mordor Failed

Sauron’s hegemonic collapse holds potent lessons for the Trump administration.

An artistic rendition of Sauron, Dark Lord of Mordor, circa Third Age 3019.
An artistic rendition of Sauron, Dark Lord of Mordor, circa Third Age 3019. New Line Cinema

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has been in a state of crisis almost since the moment he took the oath of office. The revolving door of national security and military personnel in the White House, including recently ousted National Security Advisor John Bolton, signals an administration unsure of its place on the world stage.

Trump has largely pinned his foreign policy on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from foreign theaters, outreach to autocratic regimes such as North Korea, and launching a trade war with China. None of these policies have seen much success. The withdrawal from Syria has been an unmitigated catastrophe, the North Koreans have openly called their meetings with Trump a failure, and the tariffs on Chinese exports have harmed American businesses and consumers.

If the Trump administration wishes to regain its standing and truly forge a stronger U.S. foreign policy, it should look to the historical lessons from another struggling global hegemon: the Black Land of Mordor. Oct. 21 is, of course, the 65th anniversary of the U.S. publication of one of the classic examinations of Mordorian strategy. Mordor’s downfall can be traced to three primary failings, all of which the Trump administration is also currently facing. The administration would do well to study the Red Book of Westmarch (now in the public domain), The Notion Club Papers, and other ancient texts related to Mordor.

Like the United States under the Trump administration, Mordor under the rule of the Dark Lord Sauron, at the end of the Third Age of this world, was a vibrant and unquestioned world superpower suddenly facing threats from various sides. A revived Gondor under King Elessar Telcontar loomed on its western borders. To the north, the Elves of Lothlórien joined with the Woodland Realm and the extranational, quasi-religious White Council to conquer the Mordorian exclave of Dol Guldur in Mirkwood. While Mordor, much like the United States with Saudi Arabia, pursued alliances with the nearby Variags of Khand and the Corsairs of Umbar, most of its military and economic support came from more distant powers like Rhûn and Far Harad.

Mordor’s meager breadbasket—the fields of Nurn—was insufficient to feed its armies and population, so it relied heavily on food imports and military muscle from its allies to the east and south. But the great distances, and Mordor’s landlocked position, made trade and troop movement difficult, with caravans and supply lines often being attacked by Gondorian paramilitary units in Ithilien. Mordor’s only truly peaceful border was with Rhûn to the east, a vast, underpopulated, and unguarded stretch of land: the Canada of Middle-earth. Even so, the distance between Barad-dûr and the Rhûnish fertile lands of Dorwinion made their support unreliable.

Mordor consistently failed to pursue allies closer to its own borders, especially west of the Anduin River. Client states like Angmar in the north had proved effective in earlier military disputes with Arnor and its successor states, but that was long past by the time of the War of the Ring. The Vatican-like city-state of Isengard and its tribal allies in Dunland harried Rohan but were quickly routed at the Battle of the Hornburg and were never truly in alliance with Mordor despite sharing overlapping strategic goals.

Historians agree that Sauron should have instead sought a strong political and economic partnership with Rohan, thus giving Mordor’s armies a steady supply of horses, the world’s best cavalry at the time, and a strong northern bulwark against Gondor. Mordor’s shaky pact with a small power like Isengard to hold back a vast country of mounted warriors remains one of history’s great strategic blunders. The Trump administration’s alienation of its allies in Western Europe and its uneasy détentes with adversarial states like Russia and North Korea leave the United States increasingly isolated.

Mordor’s second problem was closer to home and one familiar to any observer of American life: political polarization. While Mordor was an absolute theocracy under the iron fist of the Dark Lord, its denizens were sharply divided between those from interior Mordor, like Gorgoroth or Nurn (the Midwest of Mordor), and those from the more cosmopolitan border city of Minas Morgul (the New York of Mordor).

It’s now widely believed that the economic and political elite in Barad-dûr, such as the wealthy and well-connected Black Númenóreans, fostered such divisions to keep the populace from uniting against their true oppressors. We see similar tactics in the United States today, as Trump, a New York billionaire, pursues traditional Republican economic policies while stoking the flames of resentment between rural conservative voters and more liberal populations on the coasts.

But just as Russian bots seek to widen America’s political gap through social media, so too did Gondorian spies manage to repeatedly sow discord and provoke violence between Orcs from Minas Morgul and Mordor, which ultimately led to disaster. The Trump administration may see its political power as resting on internal division between liberal and conservative Americans, but those divisions are easily exploited by hostile powers. As Abraham Lincoln might have said had he been a goblin, “A house of lamentation divided against itself cannot stand.”

Finally, there is the amorphous but ultimately paramount issue of prestige and soft power. Or rather, a lack thereof. The Trump administration has, like Sauron, adopted an aggressive stance to enemy and ally alike, a “speak loudly and carry a big hammer of the underworld” strategy. Witness Trump’s desire for Soviet-style military parades or his bizarre letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with its threat to destroy Turkey’s economy. It’s strikingly similar to Mordor’s failed overtures to Dale and Erebor on the eve of the War of the Ring, although Sauron’s envoys were more veiled in their threats: “Find [the One Ring] … and you shall have great reward and lasting friendship from the Lord. Refuse, and things will not seem so well.”

But even superpowers cannot maintain power purely through aggression, threats, and military might. They need alliances and, beyond formal treaties, influence. Trump’s unfiltered tough guy act may work well with his base at home, but it has severely damaged the reputation of the United States abroad. Once a global leader politically and culturally, the United States is now a laughing stock.

Similarly, Mordor did little to win hearts and minds beyond its border, other than distributing exactly nine rings that turned its bearers into undead servants of the Shadow. Mordor’s dead cities, craggy mountains haunted by giant demon-spiders, black deserts, dark towers, and fiery chasms certainly intimidated foreign visitors, much like the National Mall in Washington, D.C. But aside from a few Orc cults among Gondorian counterculture youth, and overt but short-lived client states in Angmar and Isengard, Mordor never managed to craft a compelling cultural image of itself other than “actual hell on earth.”

The United States still enjoys vast and global cultural sway and an enormous amount of soft power. But Trump’s leadership is undermining that soft power every day, and it may not be long before the United States becomes a country the rest of the world simply does not want to walk into, let alone emulate or support.

It’s too early to tell if the United States will follow Mordor’s route down into the Void, though the descent of the leadership into a spirit of malice gnawing on itself, as Sauron became, has arguably already happened. There is still time to make America truly great again, as the center of the international order, by strengthening existing alliances, forging new ones, healing internal divisions at home, and renewing America’s image and soft power abroad. Also, an elite corps of invisible military commanders flying on monstrous pterodactyls wouldn’t hurt either.

Austin Gilkeson's writing has appeared at Tin HouseMcSweeney'sCatapultVultureTor.comThe Toast, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and son just outside Chicago.

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