Ever since Donald J. Trump won the presidency in 2016, America’s political elite have been asking themselves, “is the American republic dead?”
To which, I answer: yes!
In fact, the glorious republic Americans created following our victory over the British Empire died long ago. The United States has not had one republic for the last 239 years of its existence. Instead, like France, the United States has experienced a succession of republics, a total of four now. What we are witnessing with the Trump presidency is the birth pangs of America’s fifth republic—and it remains to be seen whether that new republic will survive and thrive or if it will be aborted.
The American First Republic: Agrarian, Large, and Decentralized
The United States began its existence as a constitutional, agrarian republic with a very small central government and powerful states. As time progressed and the country expanded, the our politics changed. Population increases, amazing new technological innovations, and territorial growth all functioned to alter the original republic that was created by America’s Founding generation.
The first American republic died when the country split in half during the Civil War.
The Second Republic: Expansionistic, Industrialized, and Progressive
Following that conflict, the peculiar institution of slavery was rightly ended. Yet the Reconstruction of the American South ended more in failure than success. This, coupled with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, created the second American republic. During this time, population shifted from the countryside and into the growing cities; farmers cast aside their ploughs and grabbed hold of control levers for industrial manufacturing machines.
In turn, historic levels of wealth were generated—and, along with that unprecedented wealth, came massive income inequality. Slowly, the United States began to build a class society, in which many have-nots worked menial—and dangerous—industrial jobs in the cities where they often had little to show for their efforts and as the industrialists became fabulously rich.
The result of these changes to American society was the rise of the Progressive movement, which initially subsumed both major political parties. This movement was a response to the socio-economic dislocations that the Industrial Revolution generated in the United States. Workers’ rights, calls for welfare, public education, all of these were in direct response to the imbalances that existed in America’s second republic. That period ended with the ultimate victory of the Progressive movement following the Great Depression: the successful election of Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency.
America’s Third Republic: The Welfare and Warfare State
America’s third republic saw the great gains made during the Industrial Revolution fuse with an alleged need for an all-powerful administrative state. In turn, the creation of the “New Deal” welfare state fused with the concomitant establishment of the centralized, military-industrial complex. Centralized government was more powerful than ever, and so was the United States more generally.
The third republic in the United States was more centralized and militaristic than its predecessors. This phase made modern America. It existed from the presidency of FDR and it ended with Ronald Reagan.
The Fourth American Republic: Hegemony, Free Trade, and Open Borders
When the Cold War ended, the United States found itself in the position of the sole remaining superpower presiding over a unipolar world order in which it was the global hegemon. This was the beginning of America’s fourth republic. The United States was not only more centralized than ever before, it was also the leading champion of open borders and “free trade.”
Neoliberal economic theory pervaded Washington’s ruling class while neoconservative foreign policy preferences dominated among the political elite. From George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama, the fourth republic saw the greatest erosion of civil liberties in its history as well as the return of massive income inequality, with the added complication of an onerous debt-to-GDP ratio.
Behold: America’s Fifth Republic Is Upon Us!
Things went from bad to worse in the fourth republic after the dual disasters of the Iraq War in 2003 and the Great Recession of 2008. After that, Donald Trump won the presidency, and the birth pangs of America’s fifth republic have reverberated throughout the country ever since. The birth announcement was jarring to many but essential for all to read.
The United States had slowly lost something of itself during the third and fourth republics. Yes, popular welfare programs, such as Social Security, were established. We defeated the Soviet Union. The United States also saw impressive gains in terms of wealth creation. The country had developed into the most powerful country in the world.
But, on the other side of these impressive successes were realities that the enthusiasm of Cold War victory swept under the rug. Open borders had distorted America’s political system, for instance. Illegal immigration not only had hurt the most vulnerable workers, it also had damaged many of those popular welfare programs—including the cost of healthcare for most Americans.
Meanwhile, what most were pleased to call “free trade” had not only hollowed out the American middle-class, it had also empowered American rivals, such as China, which was the beneficiary of America’s deindustrialization and globalization crazes. Advanced computer technology had made life convenient, but it had also given corporations and the government immense power to eradicate our hard-won civil liberties.
All of these things created the conditions needed for the death of the old republic.
Trump recently declared a state of emergency at the southwestern border. Well, friends, the United States has been in a “state of emergency” since at least the formation of America’s fourth republic during the George H.W. Bush presidency (though, one could reasonably argue that it goes back to the rise of Progressivism, or even the Civil War). The real issue is not that Trump’s presidency represents the death of republican government in America as understood by the Founders. It’s that he’s making us notice it.
Will the Fifth Republic Survive or Not?
In fact, a republican rebirth is underway. It’s up to the American people to decide whether or not to allow Trump to serve as midwife at this birth. Regardless of whether Trump wins reelection, the real question will be who (and what) comes after Trump? If it is a status quo political figure from either party, then the promise of America’s fifth republic will be aborted.
But if Trump is successful in enacting the full range of his policies—and if his successor is someone who also shatters the old political paradigm as he did—then the country will have been saved from the murder of our glorious old republic. A fifth American republic would be more egalitarian than the previous one; it would be pro-middle-class; and it would not be as obsessed with warfare as the previous republic was. All of these things are good developments for the American people and bad for the current crop of political and economic elites in the country.
The Trump Greatness Agenda has never been in greater peril than it is now. Let us hope and pray that the fifth republic will be fully realized; that the rebirth will not end with Trump.
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