In Empire, Billionaires, and Wars We Trust

JUNE 7, 2024


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US annexation of the Republic of Hawaii, Iolani Palace, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1898. Public Domain


Nick Bryant and I love America. We are both historians. He received his Ph.D. in American history from Oxford and I in Greek and European history from Wisconsin. We migrated to America, he to report for BBC, and I to go to school and work on Capitol Hill and the US Environmental Protection Agency. Our experiences were different, though we found similar defects in the country that became our second home, America.

The Forever War

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Nick Bryant reported from Washington, DC, and New York City. He covered the administrations from Bill Clinton to Joe Bide. He was so disappointed with politics in America that, in the end, he returned to Australia. He could not stand the perpetual shootings at schools, for example. He feared for the safety of his children. The title of one of the chapters of his new book is In Guns We Trust. His new book, The Forever War: America’s Unending Conflict With Itself (Bloomsbury, 2024) digs deeply into American history – and pathology of ceaseless murder of children. He argues that the compromises between the first states were never found a satisfactory solution. They still tyrannize the country and its people.

I have been observing America since 1961, several years longer than Bryant. I could see democracy in America was at its infancy, barely alive. But I was astonished to discover in Bryant’s important book that the Founding Founders were not exactly unanimous in their political ideology or practical vision of what their new country should be all about. Their two basic documents, The Declaration of Independence, 1776, and The Constitution, 1787, don’t even mention the word democracy in their texts. Clearly late eighteenth century slave-owning landowners who defeated the British army and won independence for their states had manifold ambitions, political and cultural. Some of them like Thomas Jefferson had a classical education, in which the idea of democracy was very important. Others like John Adams wanted the president to be like a monarch. But all of the Founding Fathers had slaves, so they were very careful in constructing a federal establishment that protected land ownership and political independence. The Preamble of the Constitution eloquently explains its purpose. “We the People,” starts the Preamble, “[wrote the Constitution] in order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, [and] provide for the common defense… and secure the blessings of Liberty.”

However, these stirring political sentiments were overlooked by America’s presidents and politicians. They built an empire. Donald Trump was simply inevitable. Bryant sees the corruption, hubris, tragedy, and danger of the empire in the saga of former President Trump dating all the way to the beginnings of the United States. The competition among states for resources and political power and their reliance on slavery shaped the character and policies of the new nation. Moreover, the United States employed genocide against Native Americans, stealing their lands, freedom, and confining the survivors of genocide into impoverished regions they called reservations. Such a massive crime still remains unpunished and ignored. It contributes to the divisions and failures of America. The conflicts and tensions of those policies have never been resolved. “For much of the past 250 years,” Bryant writes, “what is historically wrong with America has frequently outweighed what is historically right, enslavement and segregation being the most glaring examples. Most modern-day conservatives… are unwilling to make that intellectual concession, while most modern-day progressives, people of color especially, are unwilling to cohabit some whitewashed historical halfway house crowded with so many myths and untruths. The result… is deadlock, a battlefield in the history wars with unmovable trenches.”

In billionaires we trust

True, though modern-day America is overwhelmed by much more than its past slavery legacy. The main but still invisible influence and power is that of the billionaire class, as Senator Bernie Sanders calls super wealthy Americans. In a February 16, 2022 speech in the floor of the Senate, Senator Sanders said:

“As a result of a massive transfer of wealth from the working class to the top one percent over the past 50 years, the top one percent now owns more wealth than the bottom 92%. And listen to this. The two wealthiest people in America now own more wealth than the bottom 42%…. [The billionaire class] is moving this country into the oligarchic form of society for which they have long desired.”

It’s this gross inequality, key characteristic of empires, that gave birth to Trump and the dramatic decline of democracy in America. When democracy is in trouble, most Americans are in trouble. That’s what caught my attention in 1961 and continues to disturb me in 2024. My 27 years of work for the federal government also taught me another lesson related to the decline of democracy. The billionaires that produce pesticides, for example, exert influence in the halls of Congress and, eventually, in the US Environmental Protection Agency that regulates pesticides. This means shoddy science, even fraudulent science, in order to expedite the approval of the chemicals making tremendous profits for the companies of the pesticide billionaires.

This confirms the thesis of Nick Bryant’s book, The Forever War. The Conservatives / Republicans and progressive / Democrats are playing games with the suffering democracy and people of their country. Deadly crises like those of fossil fuels causing climate chaos and contaminated food by neurotoxic and carcinogenic chemical pesticides conveniently escapes their vision and conflicts. They are fighting a useless war on behalf of the billionaire class, its business and wealth as well as endless wars. After all, the progressive / democratic President Joe Biden has been funding the proxy war against Russia in Ukraine as well as the war in Israel.

Read The Forever War. It’s well written and timely. Trump, now officially a convict, is still running for president. That, in itself, shows the corruption of existing institutions serving the superrich. Senator Sanders is right. The billionaires have highjacked democracy, leading the country to an oligarchic form of government.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., studied history and biology at the University of Illinois; earned his Ph.D. in Greek and European history at the University of Wisconsin; did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. He worked on Capitol Hill and the US EPA; taught at several universities and authored several books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise.