Thomas Cole and the End of American Empire
The great painter portrayed what should be obvious: one way or another, we are doomed to decline.
For a country considered to be the most powerful in human history, America sure has an obsession with decay and collapse. The post-apocalyptic zombie TV series The Walking Dead has been renewed for an 11th season. Just of a few of the many recent post-collapse video game titles include The Last of Us, NieR: Automata, Metro Exodus, Days Gone, Mutant Year Zero, and the highly anticipated Death Stranding, not to mention the Fallout franchise. Dystopian novel series like The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and Divergent have for years been heavies in the young adult fiction genre.
Clearly, contemplating society’s collapse has become an undeniable part of the American—and perhaps Western—zeitgeist. Doubtless, there are myriad causes for this obsession. One, of course, is that every society and civilization prior to our own has collapsed. Some optimists such as Steven Pinker think ours will be different, but this goes against the track record. At some point, the United States and even the West as we know it will come to an end. Yet just as history has demonstrated this through the ages, it has also made clear that societal collapses don’t happen spontaneously. They’re instead a result of causal factors that, if properly understood, can possibly be averted.
Our founders were well aware of America’s finite nature. Their writings were rife with concern that the fledgling American Republic might someday go the same way as the Roman Republic—transforming into empire and decaying into collapse. Consequently, nearly all of America’s prominent early leaders were wary of militarism and opposed the creation of a standing army. It’s the same hesitancy that was shared by Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole, whose epic five-part masterpiece The Course of Empire could be considered the original American work of dystopian collapse art. In reference to it, Cole invoked Lord Byron’s rather fatalistic line: “There is the moral of all human tales; ‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past. First Freedom and then Glory—when that fails, Wealth, vice, corruption—barbarism at last. And History, with all her volumes vast, Hath but one page.”
Each picture in the series portrays a different angle of the same landscape. Cole thus illustrates the rise of a classical civilization from the primordial wilderness to the heights of power, only to collapse and recede. Cole was heavily influenced by the classically liberal Loco-Foco movement that was opposed to the concentration and abuse of power, and was a personal friend of the prominent Loco-Foco writer William Cullen Bryant.
Much like the United States, Cole’s civilization begins with The Savage State, in which humans equipped with primitive technology eke out an existence among a wild and untamed land. Next is The Arcadian or Pastoral State, in which humanity has begun to establish a more formalized and civilized life, mirroring America’s own development over centuries of colonization.
In the next scene, The Consummation of Empire, we witness the transformation of Cole’s idyll into a fully realized imperial society. A single primitive stone temple has been replaced with a vast and developed city, full of palatial marble buildings and ornate statues. A triumphant military parade crosses the bridge at the painting’s foreground. A developed harbor is brimming with mighty vessels, able to project the city’s power around the world.
America’s own global empire is unmatched in history. Ours is the most powerful military in the world, with hundreds of thousands of troops deployed from Germany to South Korea. No geopolitical detail is too small to warrant our meddling. Attacking and violating the sovereignty of other states without even a congressional declaration of war has become the accepted norm. And any deviation from this status quo is viewed as proof of collusion with a hostile foreign power.
Yet this empire has come at a hefty cost. Nearly 15,000 American soldiers and contractors have died in the ill-fated interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, while hundreds of thousands have filed disability claims and tens of thousands of veterans have killed themselves. In 2017 alone, there were 6,000 suicides.
The Watson Institute’s Costs of War Project estimates that the federal government has spent or is obligated to spend $5.9 trillion on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Additionally, because nearly all of this spending has been financed through borrowing, it is estimated that interest payments on the debt will total over $8 trillion by the 2050s. When combined with the current $23 trillion in national debt and the over $122 trillion in unfunded federal liabilities, the figure defies human comprehension.
Even worse, militarism has undermined many of the key social foundations that have allowed America to become the powerful and prosperous nation that it is today. Perhaps no one has chronicled this decline better than sociologist Robert Nisbet in his book The Present Age. According to Nisbet, America’s militarism has enfeebled social values and weakened the mediating institutions of civil society, leaving individuals atomized and weak as the central government sucks up more and more authority.
While Cole does not provide the viewer with lists of casualties and financial ledgers, he does offer an ever so subtle window into the inevitable fracturing and collapse of his seemingly invincible state. In the bottom right corner of The Consummation of Empire, Cole includes two young boys, one clad in green and the other in red, tussling with one another, foreshadowing the societal rifts that have already begun to open.
Such rifts are easily identifiable in America today. Institutions vital to a healthy and functioning society—such as the family and churches—are in a sad state of decay. Social trust is collapsing across America, as fewer and fewer Americans trust the federal government, the media, and each other. A 2018 survey found that “America is now home to the least-trusting informed public of the 28 countries that the firm surveyed, right below South Africa.”
It cannot be denied that militarism has played a large role in the kabuki theater that is the current impeachment inquiry. Leaving aside whether or not Trump’s behavior was appropriate, the entire Ukraine incident stems from America’s never-ending attempt to govern the world. Had our leaders heeded George Washington’s advice to “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world” and the resulting involvement in “frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns,” America wouldn’t have had to worry about the effects of foreign meddling here at home. But that ship has long sailed.
Instead, our gargantuan intelligence and foreign policy establishments are playing a central role in the ongoing impeachment process, and in so doing, are dividing Americans even deeper. Our empire’s largesse made room for the imperial bureaucrats from the CIA, NSA, State Department, and National Security Council who are currently working to remove the president.
Before the 2016 election, a prominent conservative intellectual told me that, in the event Trump was elected president, the establishment would seek to remove him by any means necessary. Millions of Americans, too, believed that the Washington blob had it out for Trump from the start. The theatrics of the Russian collusion investigation and now the impeachment inquiry have only confirmed that.
Such mistrust is echoed on the left as well. In an off the record talk at a small gathering of conservative intellectuals opposed to America’s continued militarism, a former military officer and State Department official relayed that a Democratic senator had asked him in private whether he thought there would be a mutiny in the armed forces if Trump were convicted and resisted being removed from office
Such specters are terrifying to contemplate, yet an October 2019 poll by the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown University found “that the average voter believes the U.S. is two-thirds of the way to the edge of a civil war.”
In the fourth piece of Cole’s series, simply entitled Destruction, smoke blots out the sky as red and green-bannered soldiers battle each other amidst the burning city in civil war. In the bottom right corner, we see the children from the last scene, now old men, collapsed in a pool, the green-clad man mortally wounded, reclining upon the corpse of the man in red.
A pyrrhic victory if ever there was one.
Of course, the U.S. is unlikely to descend into outright civil war anytime soon. As the Mises Institute’s Jeff Deist recently pointed out, Americans are “materially comfortable, soft, addled, diabetic, and rapidly aging,” whereas “hot civil wars require lots of young men with nothing to lose who are not busy playing Fortnite.” Then again, were our lives of relative ease and comfort to be disrupted by an economic bust, a cyber-terror attack on our infrastructure, or a military disaster of some kind, who can say what would happen?
Societies don’t simply decay like so much rotten fruit. The decay is caused by the aggregate choices that they make over time. Fortunately, such choices can be unmade in the future. So America’s doom is not sealed, though it doesn’t appear likely that our vast legions will be returning home from the four corners of the world anytime soon. Nor is it likely that our leaders will be embracing the radical degree of federalism and decentralization necessary to disarm our increasing domestic hostility.
In the end, it is impossible to say how or when America’s end will manifest. Cole concludes his series with Desolation, which shows the once-proud city’s vacant and overgrown ruins. Most of our contemporary dystopian art pictures a similarly bleak future for America’s empire. Increasing numbers of people have begun to internalize the fact, however implicitly, that the United States is not immune from that which has led to the downfall of every other great power in history. Should Americans lay down our global empire, perhaps we might avoid arriving at this fate sooner than we must. But one way or another, our empire will eventually end.
Zachary Yost is a Young Voices Foreign Policy Fellow and a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @ZacharyYost.