Watching America Die

"Time's arrow neither stays still nor reverses. It merely marches forward."

I like America. I love America. So I spend a lot of time thinking about America. What’s more, I spend a good amount of time trying to think like America. To understand it from the inside out, implicitly, to better make sense of where we’re heading and why. It’s a task that’s helped along by learning to think like our current regime, more intently than even a political junkie might otherwise choose to do. 

Because while it is not much fun to take on the burdens of our regime and pace the floor in its shoes, it tells us a lot about what’s happening to America and what our options are going forward. 

What I see when I step into the skin suit of our regime is painful. America’s capabilities have been steadily degraded from decades of bad leadership, mismanagement, and the long term effects of seesawing ideological warfare that has nevertheless failed to break the pattern of costly decline locked in by a bipartisan political consensus and a policymaking apparatus constrained by the administrative bureaucracy.

Yes, even though America created and developed digital technology with such breakout success, the early years of the digital era have been terrible for the United States. Other civilization-states that do not share our basic interests or way of life have been able to catch up quickly as the old order, the US-dominated international order, has faltered and lost its purchase on world events. The creation of the most powerful and far-reaching intelligence network in human history, Five Eyes, has not been able to change this calculus, and in some instances appears even to have hindered a correction. 

And as the triumph of super-powerful digital machines has made Americans beaten down by generations of deindustrialization, financialization, globalization, stratification, and ideological indoctrination even more hopeless about how to find a life worth the trouble of living, our regime has teamed up with the biggest and most globalized corporations to convince ordinary people that joining the woke faith community is the only true source of shared and individual meaning with the power to transcend the diminished state to which our machines and their masters have reduced us.

When I see like our regime, I look in the mirror and see a predictable but still shocking weakness and senescence. The only energy oozing through its increasingly necrotic veins comes from the purpose it finds in institutionalizing wokeness as an established religion at home and pushing for its adoption abroad. Through our regime’s eyes, I can see there doesn’t seem to be any other way I can compete against the rise of what I call “authoritarianism,” the catchall term I need to strike an energizing contrast between what’s left of the pre-digital Western order that I still have some authority over. While I guess it would be more honest to do the work of understanding rival civilization-states like Russia and China in their own right, especially considering their power to run their own internets and their own digital culture independent of my own, I truly worry that if I don’t basket them in with European countries that subsidize family formation and restrict abortion, I won’t have the juice to win back world dominance from my rivals. 

When I see the struggle for global dominance under digital conditions through the eyes of the regime, I really fear that there’s just no choice between letting the authoritarians take the world away from American influence and waging a world culture war against them through information operations and propaganda. I fear that, despite my old age, deep corruption, diminishing talent pool, and litany of past failures, I have no choice but to fight on in this way because I am nice and good, and my enemies and rivals are not. 

And because I know that the digital disenchantment of normie, respectable, consensus liberal dreams is even more powerful than ideological efforts to smash the patriarchy, break up the family, and queer the world, I watch with queasy comprehension as more and more Americans abandon those obsolete but at least predictably structured dreams, deserting default Democratic politics and retread Republican ones for woke and based doctrines increasingly native to digital life and resistant to pre-digital modes of communicative command and control. 

Maybe it’s sad, but it’s definitely true that I don’t have any hope of demonizing the woke wing of my popular base of support in the hopes of wrenching back the hands of fate and time to the old normal. The only shot I have to shoot involves linking up the global culture war on authoritarianism to a new national war on domestic terrorism. 

I know that the events of January 6 were not nearly as earth-shattering as my friends, allies, and surrogates in the media made them out to be. After all, hype is their job, and they’re foremost among interest groups whose power and authority is being destroyed by the triumph of the digital machines. And I’m pretty sure that the crowd that day was teeming with spies from a number of intelligence agencies, including some of my own—a ball of yarn I know I can’t untie or cut through, even in my mind. Still, one thing is clear: January 6 held up another huge mirror to how brittle, feeble, and vulnerable I have become. 

My only practicable hope of turning this hideous weakness into some kind of strength is by doing what my woke base does and spiritualizing all political conflicts in the hope of transcending the disaggregating forces of digital life with one ring of enmity to unite them all. It’s embarrassing to have to keep the capital ringed with cyclone fencing and concertina wire. But I need to signal strongly to my powerful civilization-state rivals that I still have the state capacity to end our cold civil war.

I guess it’s also pretty sad that I can only ram this point home to my foreign enemies and domestic adversaries by replacing the cold civil war with a cold revolution, one where I manage to cling to power at least a while longer to ensure a peaceful transition of power to the successor regime of the woke state. If I can at least nurse this transition along in an orderly fashion, I can maintain the kind of continuity that, to my dimming mind, holds out the best, perhaps last, hope for preventing some kind of authoritarianism from humiliating America even more than I’m already humiliated. 

Yes, soon key establishment voices will begin to seed the media ground with concerns that the regime looks too weak old and white to successfully fight authoritarianism and urge a swift and smooth transfer of internal power to more diverse and youthful hands. In fact, I’d better hurry to roll those voices out before my woke allies beat me to it. If all I have left is the ability to influence grand narratives, it’s essential that I grab control of the narrative of my own obsolescence and retirement. 

It might even be ethically necessary, too—the only ethics I really have left. I have some faint memories of America’s bygone Japanese rivals committing suicidal acts out of some faintly similar kind of honor ethics. After all, who am I to say that my woke allies aren’t right? After all, am I not, in some cosmic sense, truly the problem? And what better way—what other way—for a problematic leadership class to lead than to pass the mic with one hand and unplug its life support with the other?

James Poulos (@jamespoulos) is Executive Editor of The American Mind. He is the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin's Press, 2017), contributing editor of American Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life.