Film and television have trained our brains to expect narrative arcs in everything we experience, from rising action to a climax and ending in a denouement. Real life is not like this at all, but many of us cannot help but interpret at least some of our own lives in this fashion. We apply this trajectory to our high school lives, our first romantic relationships, even our careers. Thinking that we are at the center of a story helps give our lives meaning, and we are all guilty of it from time to time.
The rise of political theater is also hostage to this frame of reference. We are wont to perceive political developments progressing along a neat and tidy storyline, with all the ups, downs, shocks, disappointments, and celebrations that are built into traditional storytelling. At the end, our political option is the winner, and they all went home happily ever after.
The 2016 presidential election is a classic case of this: two simultaneous challenges to the status quo came out of nowhere to threaten the ruling elites. From the left, the “Bernie Bros” promised Americans a fairer deal that included goodies like universal healthcare. From the right, “MAGA” tapped into the powerful energy of the GOP base and its rejection of mass migration, deindustrialization, and open hostility to ordinary, everyday Americans emanating from the coastal elites. For MAGA, 2016 was indeed a fairy tale; an example of “people power” where the people steamrolled first their own party’s elite, and then those of the opposing party as well.
This massive surprise went to people’s heads (and, to be fair, rightly so). The feeling was that the system could be reformed, the ship steered back “on course,” and that America genuinely could be made “great again.” The problem was that it was one thing to win an election, but it was a totally different thing actually to govern and lead a revolution.
And let’s be honest: a revolution is what the overwhelming majority of Trump voters in 2016 wanted. They saw a system that not only did not work for them but was actively working against them. Donald Trump tapped into this populist sentiment when no one else did and rode it to the White House. Unfortunately for his supporters, Trump was no revolutionary. His presidency was a disaster thanks in part to the ruling elites subverting it, in part due to his own incapability, and also due to an act of God. You wanted a revolutionary; instead, you got a reality TV show host who was excellent on the campaign trail but utterly out of his depth in the Oval Office. He wasn’t the first to be ill-suited for the White House, but he was the first in a long, long time who was not fit and not installed by the elites.
One man cannot do it all alone—the U.S. system is a set of checks and balances that ensures this cannot happen. That means Trump needed to commandeer a vehicle to enact his agenda. The only possible vehicle that could assist him was the Republican Party. But the party’s leadership had no desire to enact Trump’s populist revolution and immediately got to work to strangle his agenda while using him to implement their own (e.g., Paul Ryan’s tax cut bill in 2017 and judicial appointments).
MAGA’s main task during Trump’s administration should have been to capture the GOP and repurpose the party to reflect his populist agenda. This did not happen, as the continued presence of Senator Mitch McConnell in the Senate leadership attests. MAGA has now had six whole years to take over the GOP and has utterly failed to do so, despite having the majority of the party base on its side. The GOP today remains the Chamber of Commerce Party, with the occasional bone thrown to social conservatives to keep them on the reservation.
Since Trump’s surprise victory, the GOP has managed not only to prevent a populist right takeover of its leadership but has also pinched just enough populist positions to continue to get mainstream Republicans like Virginia Governor Youngkin into power without alienating their funders. Trump continues to be the elephant in the room, but other than him, the GOP has tamed its populist faction (just as the Democrats have done with their own very progressive wing).
Much Ado About Nothing
It was a rather bizarre sight to see diehard Trump supporters cheering on a “red wave” that never crested last night for the simple reason that so little of that wave-that-never-came-to-shore was composed of actual, serious America First candidates. These people were cheering on a political party that actively works against their interests (and who worked against their political savior), and we can only speculate as to why they were doing so.
Viewed objectively, none of the races for the House of Representatives were game-changers to U.S. politics as a whole on either side of the political aisle. In the Senate races, only two mattered: Peter Thiel protégés J. D. Vance in Ohio and Blake Masters in Arizona. As of this writing, Vance has won his Senate race, while Masters is still waiting for all the ballots to be counted. Of the 34 Senate races Tuesday night, only these two had anything to do with the 2016 populist rebellion against the ruling elites. Even if Masters manages to get into Senate, the ratio of Chamber of Commerce Republicans versus populists will remain heavily lopsided in favor of the former. Having two MAGA senators is an OK start, but the populist capture of the GOP is still a long way off.
What we saw last night was a standard-fare mid-term election, where a certain amount of seats in the Senate went red, some others went blue, and some seats in the House of Representatives turned blue, while others turned red. The shift between one and the other was typically inconsequential in the big picture, that being a serious reform of the U.S. political system, something desired by populists on both the Left and Right in 2016.
Not only has the center held, but it has also reinforced itself thanks to seeing off the milquetoast challenge of Bernie Sanders 2016 and, more importantly, the cross-party (and institutional) sabotage of the Trump presidency.
What Does It Mean?
It means politics as usual. The two factions of the imperial ruling duopoly remain stable and not threatened by revolutionaries within their own parties any time soon. The two chambers of empire continue moving forward, with the Trump presidency a mere speedbump that is now in the rearview mirror. Turbo America it is.
It also means that civil war is not in the cards. The U.S. political system, although heated at times, is based on compromise that requires bipartisanship, something made much easier when revolutionary forces are quashed. It also means the United States will continue to transform itself domestically as it proceeds to expand further globally.
Americans, especially those on the populist Right, need to realize that they live in the Empire’s Metropole and that they are no longer a nation. They had a chance in 2016 to make the first tentative steps toward being a nation again, but they were easily defeated. America no longer belongs to you but to its elites. These elite groups see you as a nuisance who gets in the way of profit, empire, and the transformation of the United States (and its satrapies) into a society that reflects their constantly changing values, ones that do not reflect yours.
While MAGA failed to take over the GOP, the ruling U.S. elites have managed to not only “fortify elections,” but have rendered Europe a collection of nonvoting U.S. states whose economies were ruined to help push U.S. empire all the way to Kharkov, Ukraine, embarrassing Russia in the process.
Not content with that, they have also begun to strike out at China.
The U.S. regime is stable and has shaken off internal threats to it with ease while moving against the two big powers that it wants to cut down to size.
Populism on the Left or the Right does not serve the empire. This is why you, as a populist, right-wing American, should view yourself as a citizen of Rome, living on the Italian peninsula sometime in between the rule of Emperors Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, unhappy with all of these Levantines washing ashore, transforming the cities stretching from Syracuse on the island of Sicily up to Mediolanum. You are not at the tail end of the American Empire, but somewhere in the middle—possibly even at its height.
The desire to see yourself at the center of a tumultuous era, where the end of a regime takes place, reflects the psychological condition that I described at the outset of this essay. It’s no different than the apocalyptic cults surrounding extremist climate change activists, or the various “end of the world” sects throughout human history. This is perfectly natural behavior.
I am sad to report that, barring an act of God or a black swan event, the end of the United States is nowhere in sight, the regime has reinforced itself, and it is now back to business as usual.