For Trump and Biden, it’s all about empire first

Is each man’s priority to lead a dominant U.S. empire?

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SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus

If there has been anything clear about presidential politics since the June 27 debate between Donald Trump and Joseph Biden, it is that both men are running on a platform of empire first.

Despite their political differences, including their different approaches to empire, both Trump and Biden have prioritized U.S. power over all other considerations. With their multiple accusations of weakness and various claims to power, each man has cast the upcoming election as a choice over who is best fit to lead the United States into a new era of global dominance.

The United States must be “respected,” Trump demanded. No other countries will “screw around with us,” Biden insisted.

Throughout their lives, Trump and Biden have been strong advocates of American empire. Although they have refrained from calling the United States an empire, knowing that the term carries deeply negative connotations, they have displayed a strong desire for an imperial America to dominate the world.

Trump has signaled his preference by glorifying American dominance. During the 2015-2016 presidential campaign, he insisted that “our military dominance must be unquestioned.” Once in office, he often boasted that the U.S. military dominates the world. He spoke of a “destiny of American dominance.”

Trump brought multiple imperialists into his administration. His advisor Steve Bannon envisioned a Pax Americana. His military leaders insisted that they were building a more lethal military force that would never find itself in a fair fight due to its overwhelming power. Trump said that he loved the nickname of General James Mattis, who is known as “Mad Dog.”

Mike Pompeo, who worked in the Trump administration as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency and the head of the State Department, often glorified U.S. military power. “I wish the whole world just revolved around M1 tanks,” Pompeo once said. “It would make me happy.”

Although Trump’s imperial politics disturbed many people, Biden has perpetuated them, only in a different form. During the 2019-2020 presidential campaign, Biden put forward an alternative vision of American empire by insisting that the United States should take the lead in ordering the international system.

“The world does not organize itself,” Biden said. “And if we do not shape the norms and institutions that govern relations among nations, rest assured that some other nation will step into the vacuum, or no one will, and chaos will prevail.”

Biden’s position recalled the ideas of former U.S. Senator Albert Beveridge, one of the leading imperialists in U.S. history. In one of his more notorious speeches, Beveridge announced that God had made the English conquerors of America into “the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns.”

Beveridge’s speech may not be well known in Washington today, but his thinking has been revived and updated by the Biden administration. Perhaps the lead promoter has been Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has spent the past three years insisting that the United States must continue to organize the world. If the United States fails in its task, Blinken has warned, then chaos will reign.

“We know the world doesn’t organize itself,” Blinken said last year. “And in the absence of anyone taking on that role you tend to have a vacuum that may be filled by bad things before it’s filled by good things.”

Although Biden and Trump have a shared affinity for empire, they have employed different tactics. Biden has been careful to filter out racist arguments for empire, whereas Trump has embraced all sorts of bigoted thinking, often by calling for “America first,” invoking “manifest destiny,” or conceptualizing the United States as a “frontier nation.”

At the debate, Trump put his approach on full display, making several racist and colonialist arguments. Falsely claiming that migrants are causing a record crime wave, Trump argued that the United States is becoming “uncivilized.” He called Biden a “Palestinian,” a person of a colonized and occupied nation that has been suffering immensely due to the U.S.-backed Israeli military offensive in Gaza.

“It is unprecedented for someone to call a sitting U.S. president a ‘Palestinian,’ and the use of the term as an insult is a measure of how racist American society is,” Juan Cole wrote.

Still, both Trump and Biden appear to be headed for self-destruction. About a quarter of Americans hold unfavorable views of both candidates, the highest percentage in the last 10 presidential elections.

Trump may energize an increasingly extremist Republican Party, but he has employed the same kind of hateful rhetoric that mobilized so many people against him during his presidency and its aftermath.

In the meantime, Biden keeps bragging about U.S. power at a time when many people could not care less about empire. By putting empire first, he has been engaging in a kind of imperial politics that ignores the everyday challenges that most people are facing.

“People around this planet are much more interested in whether or not their lives are improving than in anyone’s imperial ambition or imperial project,” Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan acknowledged earlier this year.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Biden, however, is that many people may be inclined to believe Trump’s attacks against his mental fitness. Despite Biden’s highly calculated imperial presidency, which has exploited the war in Ukraine to weaken Russia and armed Israel while it has destroyed Gaza, voters may not be convinced that he fully understands what is happening.

Polls done after the debate show that many voters soured on Biden, leaving him with less support than Trump.

Biden should have been able to easily portray Trump as the far more dangerous candidate, but he appears to have only created doubts about himself. By going head-to-head with Trump on empire first, Biden has not only fueled fears about his viability but has done little to show that he can lead the country into a better future.

Perhaps most disturbing, both men appear to offer little more than another four years of moral and political failure. At a time of great fear and uncertainty in the United States and the world, each man’s platform of empire first caters to elites while disregarding the struggles of most people, who are increasingly doubtful that their lives will be improving in the years ahead.

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