Lunched last week with a group of friends up to date on world affairs and thoughtful in analysis. We eventually got around to the USA presidential election and the difficulty American voters face having to choose between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
We agreed both carry heavy baggage from past activities and lack the basic qualities of character an electorate likes to see in leadership candidates. We debated which of the two would be best in the White House as the United States continues to strive to be chief moderator in crises large and small around the globe.
A retired bureaucrat in the group and a retired diplomat agreed that while neither candidate promised immediate joy for the USA or the world, Clinton would be a safer bet for national economic growth and continued, if sometimes shaky, international peace.
I, always the contrarian, suggested a win by Clinton could touch off an explosion of the gun-culture violence which seems to be always simmering in the land where packing a gun is an essential right. A second civil war, I posited, was not beyond possibility as another great empire shudders on its foundations.
My knowledgeable friends kindly suggested my thinking might make a good plot for a novel but could never happen in the USA. The military, disciplined to obey the President, its commanding officer, would quickly respond to command and suppress any challenge to authority.
I hope they are right but a few days after our conversation Donald Trump published a list of former high ranking military men from army, navy and air force all openly supporting his cause. No longer in command, it is true, but an indication of the military mind-set. And one of the warning signs that even the greatest empires do not last for ever.
Greece was never an “empire” in the true sense of the word, but was once the greatest power in the known world. There were many reasons for its fall from domination but social reasons were prominent. Historian Annika Spafford wrote in The Decline of the Ancient Greek and Roman Empires: “There was increasing tension and conflict between the ruling aristocracy and the poorer classes … people became more interested in living the good life … there was a lack of discipline which led to the military interfering in politics….”
The Romans gave the final kick to topple Greece from power and a few hundred years later followed the same path from mighty force to 21st century tourist attraction.
Just ancient history? Yes, indeed, and we all know what happens to nations and people who don’t learn from it. It is not so long ago that Great Britain was just that, great until the arrogance of its so called upper classes and its often shameful treatment of the natives of its colonies created chasms of distrust that could never be repaired.
It can be justly claimed that in its years of greatness Britain changed much of the world and still sets admirable standards in democratic government. But the Empire, once the greatest, vanished.
Let’s not forget 1991, the year we watched unbelieving as Russia, the mighty Soviet Union, disintegrated in what seemed almost overnight into 15 independent countries. Once again the reasons for the collapse were many and complex – but among the causes were the old faults: The government had lost touch with the people, especially those in outposts of the empire; and, the gap between the rich and the poor was as wide in Russia as it had ever been in other empires before their collapse.
One other thread in the collapse of empires story: Excessive nationalism was always one of the fomenting ingredients stirring in the pot. At the height of power Greece, Rome, Russia, Great Britain and now the United States thought they were the greatest and would be forever. Today, in the States there is a restless, ever widening gap between government and the people who feel they are losing that greatness. Thousands, maybe millions, rejoice at Trump’s promise to “make America great again.”
It is a fear of mine that there are enough of them to provide a dreadful militant challenge to a vote democratically taken. And I hope those fears are as unfounded as my friends suggested.