Vidal’s Empire Today

Empire is one of a series of seven novels written by Gore Vidal chronicling American history; set in the years 1898 to 1907, it is the fourth in the series chronologically (but fifth in terms of publication, 1987).  Reading this story of the dawn of the US overseas empire following the Spanish-American war, I perceived interesting parallels with today’s political scene of our now decadent empire.  Though I can certainly recommend Empire, this is not a review, here I only intend to illustrate Vidal’s sense of the historical moment through a few of select passages and make the comparison to current politics.

The key historical characters in the book are John Hay and Henry Adams. With their wives and Clarence King they made up The Five of Hearts; a circle of friends that created a literary and political salon across Lafayette Park from the White House.  Hay came from Illinois to Washington to be President Lincoln’s private secretary. During the period of the book he was the Secretary of State for President William McKinley; and after his assassination, he continued to serve in the same capacity for President Theodore Roosevelt. Adams, a member of Empire: A Novel Gore Vidal Best Price: $1.69 Buy New $6.95 (as of 09:50 UTC - Details) the most prestigious American families, was the great-grandson and grandson of presidents. He was also known in his own right as a political thinker and writer; his memoir The Education of Henry Adams is considered one of the greatest American books ever written.

The following passage is the discussion between Hay and Adams that takes place on a train carrying Hay and Adams to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

“And sunny Hawaii, and poor Samoa, and the tragic Philippines? John, it is empire you all want, and it is empire that you have got, and at such a small price, when you come to think of it.”

“What price is that?” Hay could tell from the glitter in Adams’s eye that the answer would be highly unpleasant.

“The American Republic. You’ve finally got rid of it. For good. As a conservative Christian anarchist, I never much liked it.” Adams raised high his teacup. “The republic is dead; long live the empire.”

Adams was one of the anti-imperialists of the day while his good friend Hay was one of the architects of it, though to believe Vidal’s version, he was not a knee-jerk imperialist but a thoughtful one. The passage continued with Hay’s reflections on the political implications of empire. The Five of Hearts: An... O'Toole, Patricia Best Price: $4.48 Buy New $21.70 (as of 12:35 UTC - Details)

“I don’t weep.” Hay made his choice long ago. A republic—or however one wanted to describe the United States—was best run by responsible men of property. Since most men of property tended, in the first generation at least, to criminality, it was necessary for the high-minded patriotic few to wait a generation or two and then select one of their number, who had the common—or was it royal?—touch and make him president.  As deeply tiring as Theodore was on the human level, “drunk with himself,” as Henry liked to put it, he was the best the country had to offer, and they were all in luck.  For good or ill, the system excluded from power the Bryans [as in William Jennings Bryan] if not the Hearsts [as in William Randolph Hearst].  Hay was aware that the rogue publisher was a new Caesarian element upon the scene: the wealthy maker of public opinion who, having made common cause with the masses, might yet overthrow the few.

The contest [in general to determine who rules, but in particular here the 1904 presidential election] was now between the high-minded few, led by Roosevelt, and Hearst, the true inventor of the modern world.  What Hearst arbitrarily decided was news was news; and the powerful few were obliged to respond to his inventions.  Could he, also, a question much discussed among the few, make himself so much the news that he might seize one of the high—if not the highest—offices of state?  Theodore sneered at the thought—had the American people ever not voted for one of the respectable few?  And if nothing else, it was agreed by everyone (except, perhaps, the general indifferent mass of the working class) that Hearst was supremely unrespectable.  Even so, Hay had his doubts.  He feared Hearst. The Education of Henry... Henry Adams Best Price: $2.94 Buy New $12.99 (as of 12:35 UTC - Details)

Certainly it was the view of Vidal and is of most of the contributors to LRC that the Republic has long been dead and our floundering empire abroad has created a bourgeoning police state at home. Relevance for today is the clear similarity between the Hearst candidacy and that of Donald Trump playing the populist billionaire. Furthermore, Lew Rockwell has noted a similar view regarding Trump as to what Hay feared in Hearst; that the wealthy demagogue could morph into a Caesarian dictator.

But Trump causes trouble for the elite few just as Hearst did in his day. Vidal imagines what Hearst said directly to Roosevelt in a private conversation regarding damaging letters that provided evidence of influence buying throughout government

“First, I’d say it makes no difference at all who sits in that chair of yours [the presidency]. The country is run by the trusts, as you like to remind us. They’ve bought everything and everyone, including you. They can’t buy me. I’m rich. So I’m free to do as I please, and you’re not. . . .”

There is the crux of the reason for Trump’s popularity; by approaching the politically incorrect immigration issue head on he gives the impression that because he is rich he cannot be bought.  However, in the end Hearst was denied the Democratic nomination through backroom deals at the party convention. For all his power and wealth, Hearst was usually denied in his several attempts at elective office (with the exception of a stint in the US House of Representatives).  We can be assured that in all the political backrooms in the country there are discussions and plots being hatched to block Trump. We might expect as Rockwell has supposed, that “the regime might even roll out one of its lone-nut gunmen” to solve the problem.