Donald Trump’s imperial origins: a response to Eliot Cohen

Official Portrait of President Ronald Reagan.

Official Portrait of President Ronald Reagan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Donald Trump is causing a stir. His success has unleashed the expected counter attack from the political establishment. In many ways he represents the final logic of the political establishment where its political immoderation is masked as effectiveness, fairness, and delivery. Each party and each successive administration have claimed they have delivered for the people; prosperity, jobs, education, safety and hope. Yet, they have succeeded to the extent they have undermined the political consensus based on political moderation.[1] They have feasted on the extremist talk shows, the politics of personal destruction as if it is a casual sport, and sought to pitch hatreds against hatreds. However, this is more than the chickens coming home to roost. The problem is much deeper.

A rot created Trump but it goes much wider than we imagine.

Eliot Cohen in his essay The Age of Trump[2] touches on what he believes to be the deeper issue. He argues there is a political rot, a cultural rot, that has allowed Trump to emerge. He blames this rot on our popular culture, the decline of academia, and the celebrity culture. Yet, he does not explain the source of this rot. He cannot explain what caused it. What is clear, though, he wants to indicate he had no part in this. It was the other guys, someone else caused this rot. The liberal permissiveness, the liberal permissiveness created by those opposed to the conservative movement, created the rot from which Trump emerged. He wants to have clean hands, he wants to say “Look, I told you so, this is what happens when sober, small government, republican and democratic conservatives are ignored.” If only that were true.

The conservative movement is in denial.

Eliot Cohen is in denial. Like other political elites, he cannot see the beam in his eye for the mote in everyone else’s eye. He and the others in the political establishment have created this rot. They have a full hand in it. That he cannot see it shows how deep the denial is. The moral blindness of the political elite is shown by the strength of their reaction to the public’s demand for something other than the nihilistic banalities both parties have peddled since 1988. That Cohen and others, like Tom Nichols, cannot explain the rot or their role in it, speaks volumes about the scale, scope, and intensity of the infection in the political establishment and the academic establishment. What we are seeing with Trump is a public trying to find a way to rise up against that rot, which has not yet infected them, as they resist the social engineering, the foreign policy adventurism, the globalisation and the Wall Street excess which benefits the wealthy, the politically connected, and their foundations or think tanks. It is the public that wants Trump not because they want him, it is because they have no one else who speaks to their concerns. They know the source of the rot even if Cohen and Nichols do not.

What is the source of the rot?

The political rot is the political immoderation at the heart of the political establishment which is now infecting the political regime. Cohen decries the domestic political extremism, the cultural rot, the liberal permissiveness. Nichols criticises the “Star-struck, low-information[3] celebrity cultists” voters who are so stupid they will vote for whomever promises the bread and circuses. What neither explains is the source of this rot nor do they accepts is *their* role in this rot.[4] They want us to believe that the conservatives are without sin, without a hand in this political rot.

Even though they are not encouraging a liberal permissive culture or Epicurean politics; they are benefitting from it. They express the same immoderation as the domestic political elite except they do it in foreign policy where conservatives excuse it as “realism” or hard-nosed strategy. Yet, conservatives have forgetten the core lesson for anyone who wishes to practice foreign policy or international relations. Foreign policy is and always will be an expression of the regime. Their foreign policy positions have accepted the American regime’s politically immoderate behaviour. In this they have accepted the same premise as the domestic political immoderation. They assume that the domestic cultural rot is unconnected to the foreign policy adventures they have supported if not championed. More importantly, they never stop to consider how the foreign policy adventures they have supported and encouraged are exacerbating the domestic cultural and political extremism. To put it philosophically, Eliot Cohen and Nichols have both championed Pericles’ Funeral Oration. Neither has ever championed Plato’s Menexenus. The foreign policy rot did not start with Reagan. Indeed, he actually tried to end it by winning the Cold War. Had his success been fully realized, the United States would not have an immoderate foreign policy establishment. Instead, despite the end of the Cold War, no one within the mainstream foreign policy community talks of a republican foreign policy. They are wedded to an imperial foreign policy even if they know they can no longer sustain it. George W Bush recognized this when he tried to find a way to balance his foreign policy and his domestic policy when he struggled to limit the response to the 9/11 attacks from an imperial adventure to remake the world. Barack Obama has tried to moderate American foreign policy with as much success.

What is the source of the immoderate ethos?

The proximate source of the immoderate foreign policy is the Vietnam War. There, in 1965, America faced the choice of republic or empire. LBJ fudged the choice and accepted an imperial domestic policy, the Great Society that expanded the Federal Government into all parts of American life, as he pulled back from an Imperial foreign policy. It took Ronald Reagan to complete the foreign policy strategy by winning the Cold War. However, Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War were only a symptom of America’s role after World War 2 when America took responsibility for a decent world order with the founding of the UN. Since that time, America has built of an imperial system even as it retained a democratic system at home. Like Athens before it, it created a league of like-minded allies to fight the greater enemy. To fight that enemy, though, America became what it sought to destroy– an imperial state in all but name. With the Cold War over and the international system uncertain, America has the wolf by the ears and cannot let go.

Trump as a harbinger of the Imperial Republic’s demise.

With Trump, we arrive at the first harbinger of the imperial republic’s reckoning. Trump will not end the Republic. He does show us how it will end and why it will end. The disorder wrought by the immoderate domestic policy and the immoderate foreign policy have come to a political head with Donald Trump. He is not a singularity; he is a harbinger. Even if he is defeated, American and the establishment have a deeper problem. America is being pulled apart between those who want a moderate regime both at home, they want jobs, security, hope against those who want either an immoderate domestic policy, the pursuit of private vices publicly accepted and funded, or a foreign policy extremism in which war becomes the norm rather than the exception. Those who want to scale back America’s imperial posture with those who see any moderating step as a sign of weakness bordering on surrender. What connects the domestic and foreign policy extremism is a disordered eros, which surged after the 9/11 attack, it is slowly but surely devouring the American common good. The foreign policy view only sees the external threats Putin, China, North Korea, ISIS without considering how America’s domestic political ethos, the distorted ethos, is driving that foreign policy or how it has to react to those threats. We have people, who I thought were serious foreign policy scholars, willing to entertain talk that ISIS poses an existential threat to the United States. When that type of talk enters the policy realm as an acceptable view, it reflects a problematic view of the United States and the threats its faces.

What Cohen and Nichols believe is that they are moderates, conservatives, without realizing they are championing the immoderate ethos, the disordered eros, within the imperial foreign policy. The same disordered eros animates the liberal progressivism, equally imperial in its ethos, in domestic politics. (***) Both men have benefitted from the opportunities that imperial ethos, the distorted eros, (Cohen was at the Naval War College, Nichols currently teaches there) and both have championed it (Cohen famously created the think tank (Project for a New American Century).[5] Both work within a foreign policy community that shares this underlying consensus. Even the disagreements within this community are still caught within the imperial framework. The community denounce those who want to scale back, and there are some silly proposals, as isolationist, irresponsible, and in some cases crazy. To even suggest a moderate foreign policy is to elicit charges of isolationism, defeatism, if not betrayal.

Recognising the problem is the first step to recovery

Until the establishment sees their own hand in this immoderation, they will never fix what ails America that creates a Trump. Electing Hillary Clinton will only make this worse as she does not seek reform or moderation. Even electing Donald Trump will not fix what ails America. Trump is the symptom of a deeper problem. Within the Republican party the problem was exemplified earlier by Mitt Romney who was touted as a conservative or even representative of the Republic party ethos. The party no longer represents its base or huge swathes of the country. The frightened, ignorant, low information votes are not getting coherent answers from the Republican party for their questions, fears or hopes. They do not hear anyone but Trump in his bombastic posturing explaining anything that will address their situation. They have no alternative to the nihilistic establishment candidates who can only project DC to them so they turn to the nearest person who seems to understand what they are feeling and appears willing to do something about it. Their fear over immigrant workers is real. It is not nativism or racism. The Trump supporters are likely to be people who are threatened by immigration labour. They know that immigrants keep their wages down. They know they are preferred as the employer can avoid taxes. What is the Republican party doing for this voting bloc that it takes for granted when it seems to side with capital and the corporate directors? The Democrats, like Obama, are not going to help them as they believe this constituency hold on to their guns and religion.[6] The public are dismayed, confused, and left adrift by a democratic elite that promotes a disordered eros where homosexuality is enshrined in law. Where identity politics, gender politics, and the gender wars are driven by a vicious political Epicureanism in which pleasure is the only standard of right. For people from communities where honour, fidelity, duty, such an approach is anathema. They want a country that once existed, one based on nature and nature’s God instead of one where the government is captured as a weapon for the war against their virtues. When chastity, honesty, and thrift are ridiculed by the elite progressives as old-fashion morality, the people will want someone who can defend them and their children. Both parties through their relentless campaigns of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, have forced the electorate to turn to a candidate like Trump.

Trump may appeal to Republicans, the next one may unite all the dispossessed.

On the other side of the aisle, not necessarily Republican voters, but still potential voters for a populist like Trump, are those who have also been abandoned by the Democrats. Consider other “low information voters” the residents of the Chicago’s West Side. They face a bleak future of high unemployment, low education, and short life expectancy. Yet, they are taken for granted by the Democrats as they are expected to vote for the party. The Chicago political machine, the Democratic party in a microcosm, has betrayed them for decades while they serviced the Oligarchic faction within the city. They are taken for granted by the Democrats who pursue cultural political policies in the name of “freedom” and “equality” that offers no benefit to these communities. Instead, they have suffered from the horrors of the liberal progressivists cultural theories as their families are distorted by welfare systems that rewarded promiscuity, a disordered family life where abortion as taken a desperate, near genocidal toll, and educational experimentations that have created illiteracy, innumeracy, intellectual decay for generations. The communities are ignored by the Republicans and dismissed by conservatives. What Republic candidate let alone President is going to reach out to them? Chicago is and has been one of the most highly segregated cities both racially and economically. Its racial policies are an insult to the legacy of Martin Luther King. The fate of the black population is bleak and it has been bleak for generations with no end in sight.[7] Forget the fate of the conservative movement, the fate of blacks in Chicago has been devastating reality for 60 years reflecting the immoderate imperialist ethos applied to the domestic realm. Yet, the conservative movement, when it does talk of their fate, it is only to ridicule their suffering as feckless, self-inflicted behaviour a just reward for voting Democrat, or to castigate the Democrats and progressives for their failures.[8] Where have the conservatives or the republicans improved the fate of the West Side of Chicago? They never stop to ask “Where are the conservatives attempts to rebuild these cities, to reach these citizens?” For a city like Chicago with several of the wealthiest families[9] in the America (if not the world) to have this degree of segregation, poverty, brutality is like something out of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Dickens Tale of Two Cities, or Hobbes Leviathan. Chicago is a city ruled by a tyrant in the guise of a mayor. It is literally a tale of two cities one rich,[10] the other poor; one white, the other black. The life in the black communities have become a Hobbesian state of nature which is lonely, nasty, brutish, short and poor, except today the poverty is as much a white issue as it is a minority issue.

Our inability to address the intrinsic injustice reflects the disordered eros.

You never hear the conservatives talking of the two cities, the inequality, the injustice. Even if that is excused as political reality, it is a democratic stronghold so any effort is a wasted effort, there is a deeper story which neither Nichols nor Cohen are willing to address, not them personally but the position they offer. The divide is no longer racial or economic. The common good that might have overcome this inequality is frayed as the middle class, which might have formed a moderating role, is being left behind. There is no chance for the working class kids to make it to the middle class even if they enrol in one of America’s wars or its universities for both are now battlefields one military the other cultural. The middle class is being squeezed by the same economic and political forces that the lower working class suffered. They are being left behind economically. They are being segregated and no one has stood up to speak for them. The only viable candidate not from DC in this election is Donald Trump. Is it any wonder that these voters would turn to him? In particular, when the conservative foreign policy takes their support for their military adventures for granted in the same way that the Democrats take their supporters for granted on their domestic adventures?[11]

The issue is not simply a party political one. The issue is that common good is no longer defended or even understood. The political realm is now zero sum so that any victory for the other party is a defeat for the other. It is not just a defeat; it is a catastrophic defeat in where the worst consequences possible will occur. Moderation is a weakness; compromise is treason. What we have is a democratic civil war. There is no intent to work together when one can savage an opponent’s personal life where nothing is beyond the political operatives seeking to destroy their opponents. The scenes that Thucydides described with the civil war in Corcyra with the physical violence and ideological extremis are occurring with the political domain with similar consequences.[12]

Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence, became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. [5] The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended, [6] until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations had not in view the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition for their overthrow; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in crime.

The issue is more than just politics or the idea that faction checks faction so that a moderate compromise emerges from the interplay. To dismiss the West Side voters as getting what they deserve or the middle class as being rubes needing a cultural re-education in the gender studies, misunderstands the threat. The issue is not the democrats or republicans will win. Instead, it is that without a common good, a common standard of decent behaviour, without a publicly upheld common morality through an agreed understanding of what is good or evil, the community is ripe for tyranny. No candidate is speaking for the common good. We have an age where everyone wants the right to do as they choose and in particular choose what is good or evil and each party indulges that belief in their own way. The individuals are encouraged, if not educated, to decide what is right or wrong and the community must respect if not celebrate that choice. In a word, the domestic realm has become as immoderate are the foreign policy realm.

Who will deliver America’s funeral oration?

For conservatives like to decry the cultural rot and overlook their hand in it shows a deep disconnect from the political reality that created Donald Trump. If the conservatives continue to put their heads in the sand, they will have worse than Trump. Trump is not the answer, but he is a harbinger. However, their attacks on him have destroyed the conservative movement for they reveal that political expediency is better than speaking directly to the fears, hopes, and problems that created Trump. It shows why no other candidate could stand up to Trump. Instead of fielding a candidate who could stand up to Trump, who would have prevented Trump, the conservatives now talk of openly embracing Hillary Clinton as a viable alternative. To the conservatives infected with the imperial immoderate ethos, she now appears normal, effective, efficient when compared to Trump. The conservative’s “strategy” [sic] suggest that it is more important to sustain a seat at the DC trough, than confronting what makes Trump a success. Even if the conservatives survive Hillary, which is doubtful as the liberal progressive movement only faces a reckoning if the regime faces a military defeat, which the conservatives do so much to avoid, they will have nothing to conserve. By attacking Trump and supporting Hillary, they ensure Hillary wins.[13] The people will turn away from the conservatives in favour of more immoderate forces who will answer their questions. Until a party is able to rebuild the common good, another demagogue is a certainty at the next election. If the conservatives believe that they can remain clean by insisting that the cultural rot is a domestic political issue and they can retain the “purity” of foreign policy strategy, they will deserve the failures they have created. More bluntly, the conservatives have learned and taught the wrong lesson from Athens, Thucydides, and Pericles’ Funeral Oration.

*** One could suggest that America’s domestic politics has become a democratic tyranny. James V. Schall described this future in his essay A Reflection on the Classical Tractate on Tyranny: the Problem of Democratic Tyranny

[1] See the Pew surveys showing the increased polarity within the American polity.


[3] Low information here means stupid. The low information voter is usually moderate and focuses on issues of personal appeal or other characteristics and not policy proposals.

[4] (Disclaimer: I know Eliot Cohen and Tom Nichols. I attended one of Professor Cohen’s summer workshops and he is a decent, intelligent, patriot man. I have known Tom Nichols professionally for over 20 years and I admire his expertise, wit, writing, and intelligence. However, I have to follow intellectual probity when I disagree with both for there is a higher duty for a scholar and a citizen.)

[5] There is nothing intrinsically wrong with such work. My point is only that the work is a function of that ethos. Without that ethos, neither the NWC nor would PNAC be as robust as they are.

[6] What is sad to know is that Obama has done little to overcome the problems he saw. He simply identified their problems, to explain why they act as they do, and then continued on as he intended without addressing their jobs. We can see the Pennsylvania unemployment rate has only begun to drop in 2014.


[8] See for example and Yet, even the call to save the cities is faint in comparison to the thunder aimed at Trump. If the conservatives were fighting for the cities, would Trump have even emerged?

[9] #7 Pritzker family 13 Billion #27 Crown family 8.8 Billion and #28 Reyes family 8.6 Billion and #46 Smith Family 6.3 Billion.


[11] Which conservatives are able to explain and defend a coherent world view that sees the benefit from initiating the revolutions across the Middle East? Too many conservatives have apologised for the Iraq War in the vague belief that they can win an election.

[12] [3] Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals. [4] Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence, became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. [5] The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended, [6] until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations had not in view the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition for their overthrow; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in crime. [7] The fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous precautions by the stronger of the two, and not with a generous confidence. Revenge also was held of more account than self-preservation. Oaths of reconciliation, being only proffered on either side to meet an immediate difficulty, only held good so long as no other weapon was at hand; but when opportunity offered, he who first ventured to seize it and to take his enemy off his guard, thought this perfidious vengeance sweeter than an open one, since, considerations of safety apart, success by treachery won him the palm of superior intelligence. Indeed it is generally the case that men are readier to call rogues clever than simpletons honest, and are as ashamed of being the second as they are proud of being the first. [Emphasis added],0003,001:3:82

[13] Nichols’ strategy has two deep interrelated flaws. The first is that it assumes that conservatism will survive Hillary. Second, it accepts as its implicit premise the DC establishment must be defend for the only candidate who might change it is Trump.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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