Of Republics and Empires

If I’m gonna die I’ll die now, right here, fighting you.

— Muhammad Ali to a white college student who challenged his opposition to the Vietnam War

As has been made plain to the entire world, things are not going very well in the Land of the Free. Extreme police violence, normally reserved for poor people, and poor minorities in particular, is now being inflicted indiscriminately across the nation. Mainstream journalists (including foreign press), Hollywood actors, elderly men with cancer, you name it: if you’re attempting to exercise your Constitutional right to peaceably assemble, expect to be attacked with nightsticks, rubber bullets, tear gas, and the rest of the weapons of terror in the policeman’s arsenal.

Expect also to be branded a terrorist by Republican politicians, including, of course, our gruesome president. In their view, the police aren’t being tough enough; in their view, it’s time to deploy the military against American citizens. An “overwhelming show of force” is in order, to quote from Senator Tom Cotton’s notorious New York Times op-ed. As for Antifa, Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz says the government ought to “hunt them down like we do those [terrorists] in the Middle East.”

Let that one sink in for a moment. According to a member of the US House of Representatives, the federal government should unleash the hounds of empire on American citizens, tracking and killing them using military drones, illegal cluster bombs, and other munitions. Given what we know about “precision” drone strikes, lots of innocent Americans who happen to be standing near a suspected Antifa member when he or she is summarily executed will also be killed—collateral damage, as they say at the Pentagon. And if Mosul, Raqqa, Fallujah, etc., are anything to go by, the federal government will also pulverize a few American cities in its campaign to root out Antifa.

Those captured alive will be arbitrarily detained without trial at Guantanamo Bay, and they’ll be tortured a bit for good measure, just to keep ’em honest. Trump, circa 2016: “I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”

Twitter refused to take down Gaetz’s fascist call to violence, choosing instead to slap a warning label on it, just as they did when Trump threatened to have looters shot in the street. (Remember when Twitter purged thousands of accounts, many of them owned by Americans critical of US foreign policy, under the Orwellian rubric of “inauthentic behavior”?)

In a perverse way, the police are doing us all a favor. By clubbing everybody in sight they are throwing into sharp relief their real purpose, namely, to intimidate and suppress popular social movements on behalf of the folks Adam Smith unlovingly termed “the masters of mankind.” Whether they see it or not—but everyone who isn’t a police officer sees it now—their job is to uphold a system of corporate tyranny for which people like George Floyd routinely pay with their lives. Police are, after all, armed tools of the state, and what is the state if not an armed tool of corporate power? (Ask cui bono? of every war the US has fought over the past seventy-five years, the answer is always the same.) Police are the shock troops of American class warfare.

And yet their martial tactics are failing to work this time, just as they failed to work in the 1960s. En masse, the American public is rejecting police claims to authority, and that’s why we see them—the cops—lashing out with such fear and loathing. They’re experiencing a collective psychological crisis. The state has conferred enormous power on them, and now, thanks to sustained popular pressure, it is going to be forced to pull some of that power away. Rogue officers are being disciplined, fired, charged with crimes, and a number of cities are readjusting their police budgets downward. It only took a couple weeks of widespread demonstrations to get here.

We hear it all the time: democratic improvement requires organized, determined and sustained effort on the part of the public. Things are changed between, not during, elections. This can sound abstract, particularly for a generation of Americans that thinks activism consists of posting slogans on Twitter and Facebook, or of wandering around D.C. wearing hats that look like vulvas. But no longer—now it’s sparkling clear to anyone paying attention what it takes to penetrate the system. Hats off to Black Lives Matter for that.

It is easy to despair of the State of the Union when well over half of our discretionary budget goes to the military; when real wages for American workers haven’t gone up since the ’70s; when, because of a wicked arrangement put together by our corporate masters, millions of people lose their health insurance in the middle of a pandemic; when there are over 400 mass shootings in a single year; when we have more people incarcerated than China and India combined; when we continue raping the planet to maximize short term corporate profits; when police get away with murder; when Donald Trump is president; when … well, you know the story.

With such a critical mass of issues, it’s a matter of time before popular anger and resentment explode. We’re seeing that explosion in real time—along with the implosion of an empire. This is good news. The cracks in the foundation of the American empire are widening, and the whole edifice is beginning to teeter. Inevitably it will come down, collapsing from within. Empires and republics cannot coexist. The interests of one have to be subordinated to the interests of the other. For too long the empire’s interests have won out, at a massive cost, both to America and the world.

That trend is slowly reversing. The American people want out of the empire enterprise; the rest of the world wants us out of it, too, with good reason. That the emperor is wearing no clothes is more glaring now than ever before. For example, our repeated, ham-fisted attempts at a coup in Venezuela. For another example, the maximally-absurd Mike Pompeo “remembering” Tiananmen Square while police attack protesters in the streets of American cities.

It’s all very embarrassing, but also slightly encouraging. Realizing that the state will never voluntarily address the diseases afflicting American society, the people have decided to address them themselves. They’re done watching the United States go to pot while the hoodlums in Washington spend trillions of dollars bombing and invading countries that never did us injury. The enemy is within. To hell with the empire. All we can do now is hasten its demise and hope that there are still some pieces of a republic left to work with when it finally falls.

Michael Howard’s essays and short fiction have appeared in a wide variety of print and digital publications, Dissident Voice among them. He lives in Vietnam. Read other articles by Michael.