The Failure of the American Executive
On January 20, 2001, George W. Bush was inaugurated as the 43rd President of the United States and the first President of the new millennium. Optimism and confidence were in the air. The 1980s and 90s had been relatively good years for the United States, seeing strong economic growth and the fall of the Soviet Union, their greatest adversary. American influence — both culturally and economically — was at an all-time high, and it was hard not to be excited for what might be ahead and for the beacon of the free world.
Bush had run on a classic Republican platform. He spoke in tones of traditional American values, freedom and liberty, and a government that wasn’t too big and didn’t spend too much. He presented himself as a patriotic, small-government conservative who would govern the country on those values.
However, his administration would follow-through on none of those values. Every one of them would be relentlessly violated through the policies and practices of the Bush Administration. The most visible of these violations was in the area of foreign policy. Traditionally, American foreign policy had been neutrality and abstinence from engaging in conflicts abroad. This tradition had been slowly dissolved over the course of the 20th century, but it was discarded completely by the Bush Administration. After the September 11 attacks, wars were launched in Afghanistan and Somalia for the sole purpose of trying to extend American influence, rather than capture of kill Al-Qaeda members. In 2003, the United States-led coalition invaded Iraq under the false pretense of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” that were allegedly being hidden by Saddam Hussein in Iraq. There was little, if any proof, of such weapons existing, and of course, no such “WMDs” were ever found. No one will ever know exactly how many Iraqi people were killed as a result of the war, but most estimates place it somewhere around one million. The destabilization that these wars caused would be the impetus for future wars and future destruction echoes into the present day.
The Bush Administration were all too-happy to violate the freedoms of the American people as well. The ironically named “PATRIOT Act” passed in 2001 directly led to the creation of a vast spying network that allowed for the FBI, CIA, and NSA to collect data on millions of American citizens. There were ostensible limits on what they were allowed to access and spy on, of course, but as Edward Snowden later revealed in leaked documents in 2013, these limits were virtually non-existent. As a result of this legislation and the power it granted to government intelligence agencies, any pretense of 4th Amendment rights as it applied to an individual’s data and personal information were gone for good.
Additionally, under the Bush Administration government growth and spending reached levels never-before seen up to that point. Wars are expensive, and in order to foot the bill, federal spending and deficits had to be increased year-after-year in order to keep up with the costs of conflict. In order to help the government to afford the debt that they incurred, the Federal Reserve artificially lowered interest rates through the early-to-mid 2000s. The result was an induced distortion in the economy, the correction of which came in 2008, leading to the Great Recession and the greatest financial meltdown in modern times. It would take years to pick up the economic pieces and for economic growth to begin again.
George W. Bush had sought to maintain American values, keep government small, and preserve the freedoms and liberties of the American people. Instead, he destroyed American values, massively expanded government, and systematically violated liberty and freedom at every possible turn. In all of these goals, he was a complete and total failure.
In the leadup to the 2008 election, an upstart politician started making waves in the Democratic Party primaries. His name was Barack Obama. He was a junior politician, only having been a senator from Illinois for two years, but his presidential bid was quickly starting to gain traction around the nation. There are many reasons for Obama’s initial campaign success, but the most important is that stood opposite to everything the Bush Administration was. Obama was liberal, young, black, charismatic and voiced a message of hope and change that inspired millions of people. He ran on a platform of rejecting everything that the last 8 years had brought, restoring the dream of what America could be, and changing this country for the better.
None of these promises would come to fruition either. All of the wars that the Bush Administration had started were continued by the Obama Administration. The War in Iraq was eventually ended in 2011, but new wars were quickly started elsewhere in the Middle East. To overthrow the Assad Regime, a war in support of Al-Qaeda was launched in Syria. To overthrow the Gaddafi Regime, a war in support of Bid-Laddenite terrorists was launched in Libya. To overthrow the Houthis in Yemen, a war was launched in support a Saudi Arabia-led coalition. On top of all of this were secret drone programs and kill lists to assassinate suspected terrorists without trial or due process.
All of the government spending, specifically military spending, that Bush had created was all continued and expanded under Obama. Budget deficits continued to balloon ever larger and the prospects of ever paying it off continued to shrink. His signature legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, was billed as transforming American healthcare for the better, but proceed to just be an extension of the failures of the existing system. It was sold on lies of “If you like your doctor, you can keep them”, and did everything but make healthcare more affordable.
Every violation of the liberties and freedoms of the American people from the Bush Administration was only expanded upon. The PATRIOT Act provisions were all extended further, including the implementation of the PRISM system to further collect and categorize even more of the American people’s data. When James Clapper was directly asked about these surveillance programs while testifying to Congress, he lied about their nature and scope, stating that the NSA was not collecting mass amounts of data on the American people. This lie was revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013, and to this day he is yet to face any consequences for lying to Congress and the American people.
Barack Obama sought to inspire hope and change — to repudiate the Bush administration and to build a better future. He left the American people hopeless and didn’t change anything. In these goals, he was a complete and total failure.
In the 2016 Republican primaries, a surprise frontrunner emerged out of the pack of presidential hopefuls. This emerging figure was the ever-audacious, irreverent, immensely controversial Donald Trump. He was everything that Washington D.C. politics wasn’t: he was spontaneous and shunned any kind of preparation, he didn’t put forward a carefully crafted public persona, and he didn’t play the game of politics in the gentlemanly way that everyone else did. Most importantly, he questioned the role of the United States on the world stage and the foreign policy establishment that had emerged over the last 15 years.
The Trump campaign was more a loose amalgamation of policies than any kind of conscious political effort, but the through-line that connected them all was an opposition to the establishment. He was going to “drain the swamp”, as he repeated constantly on the campaign trail. He positioned himself as the person that would go into Washington D.C. and fix the problems that had maligned the country for years. Apparently, the American people believed him enough to elect him on those grounds, despite never holding political office before.
But even these promises would be left unfulfilled. The wars that Trump had railed against were largely continued. To his credit, he did end the war in Syria and began the Afghanistan withdrawal, but he dragged his feet on Afghanistan withdrawal when he had no reason to and he didn’t end the support for the brutal Saudi-led coalition in Yemen or the U.S. presence in Somalia. Furthermore, he greatly expanded the drone war, leading to the deaths of numerous innocent civilians all around the Middle East.
Even though he promised to “drain the swamp”, he filled his administration with the slimiest swamp creatures around. His staff was composed of people like John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, William Barr, H.R. McMaster and other similarly unsavory characters. These individuals and those like them are the embodiment of the establishment, and Trump handed them power when he got into the White House. He didn’t have to, but those were his choices to make and those were the people he chose. Rather than draining the swamp, he has willing to give power back to it.
All of the grandiose promises about reducing the size of government went unfulfilled as well. Trump, as he was wont to do, made absurd promises on the campaign trail of paying off the federal debt in 8 years, which was never going to happen. Regardless, no serious attempts were made to reduce the presence of the federal government in any serious form. Budget deficits continued to grow year after year, and the bureaucratic red tape that continues to overregulate the economy continued to pile up. Of course, the massive spying apparatus that had been built up by the previous two administrations wasn’t touched either.
Donald Trump sought to dismantle the Washington D.C. establishment that had dictated the course of the country over the last 16 years. However, he played right along with the establishment agenda and did nothing tangible to fight against it. In this goal, he was a complete and total failure.
The Trump years brought with them more than their fair share of turmoil for the country. Between the 24/7 news cycle, Trump’s Twitter account, the constant shuffling around of administration officials, COVID-19, and both impeachment trials, it seemed like there was always something happening at any given time. It was equal parts entertaining and exhausting. After 4 years of the constant political merry-go-round, many people were simply exasperated and ready to go back to the pre-Trump days. In the 2020 election, this was precisely this sentiment that Joe Biden exploited. Once he was in office, the adults were going to be back in charge, and normalcy in American politics would finally be returned. Trump would be gone, and the problems of the last four years would all be in the past.
However, the Biden Administration has brought anything but normalcy. The planned pull-out of U.S. forces in Afghanistan brought with it a complete disaster, wherein the national government that the U.S. had spent 20 years supporting fell apart almost overnight. The Taliban, whom the U.S. forces had spent 20 years fighting, took control of the country with virtually no resistance. The result was a mad scramble by the U.S. military to extradite all of its forces, staff, and civilians out of the country before the agreed withdrawal date. For good measure, ten innocent civilians were also killed in a drone strike in Kabul right before leaving as well, just to put a cherry on top of the entire U.S. presence that had ravaged the country over the past two decades.
More than just foreign crises, the U.S. has experienced economic crises as well. Inflation has pummeled the U.S. economy, eroding the value of money at a pace not seen since the 1970s. The result is that average Americans find their grocery bills, rent, and gasoline more expensive and less affordable than last year. In addition, shortages on goods continue to cause delays and difficulties in manufacturing, putting even more upward pressure on prices. As if all this suffering was not enough, in the first half of 2022, the U.S. economy effectively went into recession, despite the Biden Administration’s best efforts to try and convince the public otherwise. Stock prices have tumbled, market sentiments are pessimistic, and a nasty economic crisis could very well be ahead of us yet.
Furthermore, the constant political and culture battles of the Trump years have continued to intensify. Trump himself is gone, but the movement that he created and fostered is alive and well. The constant political conflict that characterized the Trump has continued throughout the crises of the Biden Administration as well. The deep-set partisanship that has divided the country over the last 6–7 years has only been exacerbated and increased, with no end or reprieve in sight. Even though the person running it has changed, the country is still just as divided as ever.
Joe Biden ran on promises of returning the country back to normalcy and reversing the chaos of the Trump years. While his administration has not yet concluded, thus far, in these promises he has completely and totally failed.
What will the next few years of American politics look like? While we obviously cannot know for sure, we can extrapolate the themes of the past into the future to give us a possible picture. The Biden Administration will continue to fail in their promises to bring back normalcy, and his administration will continue to flounder in economic, political, and cultural turmoil. However, his true coup-de-grace will come with Donald Trump winning back the White House in 2024, firmly cementing his presidential legacy as a total failure, being totally unable to return the country to a pre-Trump era. Trump will run in 2024 on a much harder line against the establishment, specifically the intelligence agencies that worked overtime in their attempts to cripple his first term in office. However, no real dismantling or destruction of these agencies will take place. The heads will be removed and replaced, and a few of the upper-ranks will be sacked, but the organizations themselves will be largely untouched. Government spending, of course, won’t be touched and the overregulation of the economy won’t be reduced in any way either. In his second term, Trump will again fail to make good on his promises of opposing the Washington D.C. establishment.
In the last two decades of the American executive, there has been one constant theme: failure. Through each administration, regardless of the party they represented or the goals that they pursued, what unites them all is the overwhelming sense of failure. We can only ask: why? In the past, presidents never got everything they wanted, but they achieved at least some of their desired goals. Why do we see such intense failure in our modern age?
It is because such failure is the hallmark of the decline of all empires. When the state is overextended, when the foolish escapades abroad bear their consequences, and when economy and society alike are strained under the weight of it all, the entire system begins to crack. As these cracks become more and more self-evident, then the pillars of support begin to crumble. During this crumbling process, the habits of empire that were routine are longer so easy. The levers of power begin to stick. The political process that used to be so efficient becomes gridlocked. Deep partisanship results as each side of the political aisle blames the other for the failures and slow collapse transpiring all around them. The result is that the grandiose promises that politicians make, go even further without resolution.
The U.S. Empire, which has projected power around the globe since World War II, has made all the mistakes for its collapse to begin. Endless and pointless wars abroad, the erosion of freedoms at home, the destruction of the economy, and the degeneration of the culture all but assure that the empire is destined for an ignominious collapse. The result of this is the failure that we have seen in each president of the second millennium. Even though this failure is apparent, it is only a symptom of a larger problem. No doubt, they are failures and have failed, but the failure of the American executive is not because of a lack of will by those who inhabit it or a crisis of character. Rather, it is the inevitable result of all crumbling empires: of the kings, rulers, generals, and presidents of all those empires that have fallen in the past, known to us only as artifacts of history.