And in that day you will cry out because of your king,
whom you have chosen for yourselves;
but the LORD will not answer you in that day.
1 Samuel 8:18
Those of us schooled in the Hebrew scriptures are acquainted with the bad-king, good-king pattern through the stories about Saul, David, Solomon, Ahab, Josiah and 400 years of Hebrew history. Our take-away from that bit of Bible education is the habit of labeling current political leaders the same way: good President Obama, bad President Trump, etc.
As the opening quote from the prophet Samuel reminds us, this bad-king, good-king rubric is not what the prophetic voice of Hebrew scripture intended. Instead, it generally associated kings and the imperial state of mind with oppression and grief. It is this prophetic voice—reiterated so beautifully by 2nd Isaiah and Genesis in the post-exilic era of Jewish history—that If Not Empire, What? and this blog highlight.
We are at the end of a week in which President Trump reiterated his support for torture and secret CIA prisons where kidnapped prisoners can be dealt with outside the rule of law. In which Trump voiced his regret that the US had not stolen Iraq’s oil during its invasion and occupation (2003-2011) and broached the possibility of correcting that “mistake” in the future. In which he closed our borders to persons from seven, predominantly Muslim countries. In which he ordered the building of a wall along the US border with Mexico and then attempted to humiliate president of Mexico, who does not support such a wall.
Pretty bad, huh?
Then someone reminds us that torture and secret prisons were part of Bush Administration policy, only a few years ago. That the invasion and occupation of Iraq were supported by nearly all of the Democrats and Republicans ensconced in Congress today. That President Obama bombed six those seven countries whose citizens are now barred from the US—creating bitter enemies in the process—and commenced cyber warfare against the seventh (Iran). That the wall President Trump wants has been under continuous construction since the mid-‘90s and already covers 580 miles.
Am I trying to downplay the anxiety and disorientation people are feeling? No, not at all.
But I am asking readers to consider carefully how they describe this apparent crisis. Does the bad-king, good-king motif get to the bottom of it? Or does wisdom suggest we dig a little deeper?
Here is journalist and author Paul Street describing what is happening:
For the U.S. establishment, Trump poses a threat to Brand America. It is longstanding bipartisan U.S. ruling class doctrine that the United States is the world’s great beacon and agent of democracy, human rights, justice, and freedom. American Reality has never matched the doctrine, and it didn’t under Obama, of course, but it is especially difficult to credibly align those claims with a candidate and now a president like Trump, who has openly exhibited racist, nativist, sexist, arch-authoritarian, police-statist, Islamophobic, pro-torture, and even neo-fascist sentiments and values.
Street quotes author Mike Lofgren, former Republican congressional staffer and author of The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, writing last summer on why nearly all of America’s political elite supported Hillary Clinton instead of Donald Trump:
If our system of government is an oligarchy with a façade of democratic and constitutional process, Trump would not only rip that façade away for the entire world to behold; he would take our system’s ugliest features and intensify them.
In other words, with the arrival of President Trump as Oligarch-in-Chief, the empire is stripped naked. It’s ugly and brutal and reveals the US to be undeserving of the power to rule the world and seize such a large share of the world’s wealth. This is why so many in the mainstream media are freaking out.
But here’s an important point: most mainstream media do not acknowledge that this moment of “crisis” is a matter of branding and appearances. Instead, they depict Trump as an alien force, a break with tradition, someone with a new and distorted vision for America. I quote only one of thousands of examples of such thinking, an essay by popular progressive blogger Heather Digby Parton:
Trump is not an isolationist. He’s not a “realist.” Neither is he a liberal interventionist or a neoconservative idealist. He’s an old-fashioned imperialist. He wants to Make America great again by making it the world’s dominant superpower, capable of bullying other countries into submission and behaving however we like. He doesn’t seem to understand that the world won’t put up with that.
Justin Raimondo, the anti-imperialist editor of www.antiwar.com, describes Trump’s vision for America as a reflection of what has been the prevailing view of the political elite since World War 2: US global dominance is “a supposedly sacred task” for the world’s benefit.
Yet, Raimondo asserts, Trump’s bold challenging of conventional wisdom, his bombastic style and his arbitrary manner create an opportunity for the American people to finally take a stand against what America has become. Raimondo writes:
After years of constant warfare, and the stunning realization that our empire has brought us nothing but financial and moral ruin, Americans are again seeking a return to normalcy . . . Having gone down the road that Rome once trod, Americans stand at the abyss of inexorable decline – and they want to turn back.
How about you and me? Are we joining the consternation and panic over matters of appearance and style?
Or are we employing the lens of 1 Samuel 8:18 to see Trump as another iteration of a long-entrenched reality: the ideology of dominance metastasized into empire?