We have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire. If you ask when, the answer is that you cannot make a single stroke between day and night; the precise moment does not matter. There was no painted sign to say: “You are now entering Imperium.” Yet it was a very old road and the voice of history was saying: “Whether you know it or not, the act of crossing may be irreversible.” And now, not far ahead, is a sign that reads: “No U-turns.”
Thus began Garet Garrett’s prescient polemic “Rise of Empire,” written in 1952. I turn to Garrett when I’m in an elegiac mood, and surely these days my moods rival his in their darkness. He annoyed his fellow libertarian, the novelist and ideologue Rose Wilder Lane, to no end with what she called his “keening” note of pessimism, which mourned “a world forever lost.” When I was younger I sided with the ebullient Miss Lane, whose vision of a rising World Revolution (her caps) in favor of individual liberty stirred my hopeful heart. Alas, it’s not just my lowered level of testosterone that has me defecting to Garrett’s more worldly, albeit less inspiring, view.
The idea that the United States is any kind of a republic, even loosely defined—never mind a constitutional republic—is at this point laughable. Nothing highlights this tragic fact better than the prospect of having to choose between two political dynasties in the 2016 presidential election.
On the one hand, we have the probable winner—Hillary Rodham Clinton, the most admired woman in America and the beneficiary of the identity politics sweepstakes this time around. The number of women who will cast their vote for her because of her chromosomal arrangements is unknown at this point, but we can safely project it to be in the millions. Yet that is the least of her entitlements: The main one is membership in Clan Clinton, a royal family of hillbilly grifters whose contribution to the history of the presidency has been to impart a whiff of trailer trash to a passel of patricians.
Ah, but these are the new patricians, the aristocracy of the 21st century, who jet around the globe canoodling with despots and trading favors in exchange for donations to their charitable foundation—the number-one object of their charity being themselves. Hillary charges a $300,000 speaking fee; her favorite subject is the bane of rising economic inequality. Meanwhile, Bill barnstorms the globe, meeting with the president-for-life of Kazakhstan while scoring a uranium franchise for one of his biggest donors, and a free ride for himself to the despot’s palace in the donor’s private jet.
The Clintons are immensely popular precisely because they mirror the vulgarity of the average American, albeit on a scale unreachable by the masses. Indeed, the course of Bill’s and Hillary’s dual careers is like an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, in which Jed Clampett and Granny take Washington.
You’ll recall that the Clampetts had next-door neighbors, the Drysdales, Milburn and Margaret, whose resemblance to the blue-blooded Bush family is the kind of synchronicity that makes one wonder whether the scriptwriter was descended from Nostradamus. Milburn is a bank president whose greed is underscored by his oily obsequiousness and his scheming manipulations in the service of mammon. Wife Margaret, who traces her lineage to the Mayflower, is a snooty old snob, a caricature of Old Money hauteur who despises the Clampetts but is constantly being reined in by her husband’s boundless opportunism.
I base my prediction of the outcome of the 2016 election on the bias of The Beverly Hillbillies scriptwriter, whose sympathies were obviously with the Clampetts. Jed, Granny, Jethro, and Elly May were presented as refreshingly honest plebeians, whose simple ways and appetites were contrasted with the sly phoniness of Milburn and the clenched-teeth formality of uptight Margaret. In any contest between the Clinton-Clampetts and the Bush-Drysdale clan the former are bound to win, hands down.
It’s only appropriate that our Old Republic, in its declining years, should limn a 1960’s sitcom, with no pretensions either to didactic profundity or to high art. There is no dramatic tension, and no real plot—only one joke after another. Except very few of us are laughing.
An empire must have an emperor or, in our egalitarian times, an empress, and so the competition for the crown commences. That we are likely to be asked to choose between two families of third-rate actors reveals the sheer tackiness of our sad condition. We are an empire entirely unlike our British predecessor, bereft of both pomp and circumstance. Our decline and fall will lack the high drama of tragedy. Instead, we are the captive audience of a low comedy.