Imperialism Tom Engelhardt

The American Century Ends Early

How the USS Enterprise was transformed into the USS Roach: Let’s face it, whether we fully grasp the fact or not, we now live in a system, as well as a country, that’s visibly in an early stage of disintegration.

By Tom Engelhardt / Reposted with permission from

Like Gregor Samsa, the never-to-be-forgotten character in Franz Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis,” we awoke on January 7th to discover that we, too, were “a giant insect” with “a domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments” and numerous “pitifully thin” legs that “waved helplessly” before our eyes. If you prefer, though, you can just say it: we opened our eyes and found that, somehow, we had become a giant roach of a country.

Yes, I know, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are now in charge and waving their own little limbs wildly, trying to do some of what needs to be done for this sad land of the disturbed, over-armed, sick, and dying. But anyone who watched the scenes of Floridians celebrating a Super Bowl victory, largely unmasked and cheering, shoulder to shoulder in the streets of Tampa, can’t help but realize that we are now indeed a roach nation, the still-wealthiest, most pandemically unmasked one on Planet Earth.

But don’t just blame Donald Trump. Admittedly, we’ve just passed through the Senate trial and acquittal of the largest political cockroach around. I’m talking about the president who, upon discovering that his vice president was in danger of being “executed” (“Hang Mike Pence!“) and was being rushed out of the Senate as a mob bore down on him, promptly tweeted: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.”

Just imagine. The veep who had — if you don’t mind my mixing my creature metaphors here — toadied up to the president for four endless years was then given a functional death sentence by that same man. You can’t fall much deeper into personal roachdom than that. My point here, though, is that our all-American version of roacherie was a long time in coming.

Or put another way: unimaginable as The Donald might have seemed when he descended that Trump Tower escalator in June 2015 to hail his future “great, great wall,” denounce Mexican “rapists,” and bid to make a whole country into his apprentices, he didn’t end up in the Oval Office for no reason. He was the symptom, not the disease, though what a symptom he would prove to be — and when it came to diseases, what a nightmare beyond all imagining.

Let’s face it, whether we fully grasp the fact or not, we now live in a system, as well as a country, that’s visibly in an early stage of disintegration. And there lies a remarkable tale of history happening at warp speed, of how, in not quite three decades, the USS Enterprise of imperial powers was transformed into the USS Roach.

Once Upon a Time on Earth…

Return for a moment to 1991, almost two years after the Berlin Wall fell, when the Soviet Union finally imploded and the Cold War officially ended. Imagine that you had been able to show Americans then — especially the political class in Washington — that 13-minute video of Trump statements and tweets interlarded with mob actions in the Capitol that the Democratic House impeachment managers used in their opening salvo against the former president. Americans — just about any of us — would have thought we were watching the most absurd science fiction or perhaps the single least reality-based bit of black comedy imaginable.

In the thoroughly self-satisfied (if somewhat surprised) Washington of 1991, the triumphalist capital of “the last superpower,” that video would have portrayed a president, an insurrectionary mob, and an endangered Congress no one could have imagined possible — not in another nearly 30 years, not in a century, not in any American future. Then again, if in 1991 you had tried to convince anyone in this country that a walking Ponzi scheme(r) like Donald Trump could become president, no less be impeached twice, you would have been laughed out of the room.

After all, this country had just become the ultimate superpower in history, the last one ever. Left alone on this planet, it had a military beyond compare and an economy that was the heartland of a globalized system and the envy of the world. The Earth was — or at least to the political class of that moment seemed to be — ours for the taking, but certainly not for the losing, not in any imaginable future. The question then wasn’t keeping them out but keeping us in. No “big, fat, beautiful walls” were needed. After all, Russia was a wreck. China was still emerging economically from the hell of the Maoist years. Europe was dependent on the U.S. and, when it came to the rest of world, what else need be said?

This was an American planet, pure and simple.

In retrospect, consider the irony. There had been talk then about a post-Cold War “peace dividend.” Who would have guessed, though, that dividends of any sort would increasingly go to the top 1% and that almost 30 years later this country would functionally be a plutocracy overseen until a month ago by a self-professed multibillionaire? Who would have imagined that the American version of a peace dividend would have been siphoned off by more billionaires than anyplace else on earth and that, in those same years, inequality would reach historic heights, while poverty and hunger only grew? Who woulda guessed that whatever peace dividend didn’t go to the ultra-wealthy would go to an ever-larger national security state and the industrial complex of weapons makers that surrounded it? Who woulda guessed that, in official post-Cold War Washington, peace would turn out to be the last thing on anyone’s mind, even though this country seemed almost disarmingly enemy-less? (Remember when the worst imaginable combination of enemies, a dreaded “axis of evil,” would prove to be Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, all embattled, distinctly tertiary powers?)

Who woulda guessed that a military considered beyond compare (and funded to this day like no other) would proceed to fight war after war, literally decades of conflict, and yet — except for the quasi-triumph of the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — achieve victory in none of them? Staggering trillions of taxpayer dollars would be spent on them, while those billionaires were given untold tax breaks. Honestly, who would have guessed then that, on a planet lacking significant enemies, Washington, even six presidents later, would prove incapable of stopping fighting?

Who woulda guessed that, in September 2001, not Russia or Communist China, but a tiny group of Islamic militants led by a rich Saudi extremist the U.S. had once backed would send 19 (mostly Saudi) hijackers to directly attack the United States? They would, of course, cause death and mayhem, allowing President George W. Bush to launch an almost 20-year “global war on terror,” which still shows no sign of ending. Who woulda guessed that, in the wake of those 9/11 terror attacks, the son of the man who had presided over the first Gulf War (but stopped short of felling Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein) and the top officials of his administration would come to believe that the world was his oyster and that the U.S. should dominate the Greater Middle East and possibly the planet in a way previously unimaginable? Who would have imagined that he would invade Iraq (having done the same in Afghanistan a year and a half earlier), effectively helping to spread Islamic extremism far and wide, while creating a never-ending disaster for this country?

Who woulda guessed that, in 2009, in the wake of a Great Recession at home, the next president, Barack Obama, would order a massive “surge” of forces into Afghanistan, a war already eight years old? Tens of thousands of new troops, not to speak of contractors, CIA operatives, and others would be sent there without faintly settling things.

By November 2016, when an antiquated electoral system gave the popular vote to Hillary Clinton but put Donald Trump, a man who promised to end this country’s “endless wars” (he didn’t) in the Oval Office, it should have been obvious that something was awry on the yellow brick road to imperial glory. By then, in fact, for a surprising number of Americans, this had become a land of grotesque inequality and lack of opportunity. And many of them would prove ready indeed to use their votes to send a message to the country about their desire to Trump that very reality.

From there, of course, with no Wizard of Oz in sight, it would be anything but a yellow brick road to January 6, 2021, when, the president having rejected the results of the 2020 election, a mob would storm the Capitol. All of it and the impeachment fiasco to follow would reveal the functional definition of a failing democracy, one in which the old rules no longer held.

Exiting the Superpower Stage of History

And, of course, I have yet to even mention the obvious — the still-unending nightmare that engulfed the country early in 2020 and that, I suspect, will someday be seen as the true ending point for a strikingly foreshortened American century. I’m thinking, of course, of Covid-19, the pandemic disease that swept the country, infecting tens of millions of Americans and killing hundreds of thousands in a fashion unmatched anywhere else on the planet. It would even for a time fell a president, while creating mayhem and ever more fierce division in unmasked parts of the country filled with civilians armed to the teeth, swept up in conspiracy theories, and at the edge of who knew what.

Call it a sign from the gods or anything you want, but call it startling. Imagine a disease that the last superpower handled so much more poorly than countries with remarkably fewer resources. Think of it as a kind of judgment, if not epitaph, on that very superpower.

Or put another way: not quite 30 years after the Soviet Union exited the stage of history, we’re living in a land that was itself strangely intent on heading for that same exit — a crippled country led by a 78-year-old president, its system under startling pressure and evidently beginning to come apart at the seams. One of its political parties is unrecognizable; its presidency has been stripped of a fully functioning Congress and is increasingly imperial in nature; its economic system plutocratic; its military still struggling across significant parts of the planet, while a possible new cold war with a rising China is evidently on the horizon; and all of this on a planet that itself, even putting aside that global pandemic, is visibly in the deepest of trouble.

At the end of Franz Kafka’s classic tale, Gregor Samsa, now a giant insect with a rotting apple embedded in its back, dies in roach hell, even if also in his very own room with his parents and sisters nearby. Is the same fate in store, after a fashion, for the American superpower?

In some sense, in the Trump and Covid-19 years, the United States has indeed been unmasked as a roach superpower on a planet going to — again, excuse the mixed animal metaphors — the dogs. The expected all-American age of power and glory hasn’t been faintly what was imagined in 1991, not in a country that has shown remarkably few signs of coming to grips with what these years have truly meant.

Centuries after the modern imperial age began, it’s evidently coming to an end in a hell that Joe Biden and crew won’t be able to stop, even if, unlike the previous president, they’re anything but intent on thoroughly despoiling this land.  Still, Trump or Biden, at this point it couldn’t be clearer that we need some new way of thinking about and being on this increasingly roach-infested planet of ours.

Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture.  A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt


  1. Wait a minute!!! We won that War in Grenada Big Time, a Shutout, fair and square, keeping those commie pinkos from infesting and infecting the ‘muricas ! Hurrah for Reagan !!!

    And we did it just in time to cover up, Nixon-style, that massacre of US troops in Lebanon – just days before ‘renada – by Islamic terrorists in a poorly guarded etc barracks that, errr, Reagan had sent there and fortified against those commie pinko Islamic terrorists. Or something.

    Am I right? Am I right?!

  2. Powerful. Dreadfully awful. All true. I think of all those little mostly boy babies who grew up and became soldiers in all the wars since the civil war most of whom thought they were fighting for something meaningful, even noble. These last 40, 50 years a massive billionaire corporate poisonous spit wad on all their graves. No wonder Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple.

  3. Thanks, Tom Engelhardt, that about covers it. It could all be stopped and turned around except for one thing: both major parties decided that good people will not ever be allowed to sit in the White House, nor select really good people for their cabinets and decide to stop funding the MIC, supporting Israel, illegally attacking sovereign countries and pulling off illegal coups. The duopoly consists of the same elites. The GOP spews hate openly and the DEMS pretend to be caring, but both are incapable of turning the tide toward saving this awful country. Doom is upon us. Someone (Chris Hedges?) said we either chose as our goal death or life. The USA has chosen death.

  4. A very good description of what has happened and where we are, however the plutocracy started 50 years ago with Nixon and Kissinger and Powell. It was sold by Reagan and fully implemented by Clinton in the legal sense so that by 2021 it has become so entrenched that even the catastrophe of covid hasn’t dented it. The camp followers of the plutocracy, the Democrats and Republicans and their media trolls are still pulling fantastic wealth

    When one looks at the history of empires eventually the tributes of plunder become less and less and cost more and more to retrieve so ultimately all empires turn in on themselves with the plutocracy raping and pillaging their own country, hollowing it out until it eventually collapses under the weight of their hubris and greed.

  5. My only complaint is that this roach metaphor is an insult to cockroaches, whose ability (as detritovores) to live in and feed off what humans find the most revolting sewage conditions gives them a shot at surviving into the 23rd century, while humans have a far lower probability of that outcome. All organisms that live within the limitations of their biology are intelligent. Humans are the exception, making the normally accepted scales of intelligence largely irrelevant.

    1. Thanks, Vencenzo, I’m always happy when someone speaks up for the insects of the world, in fact, for all the animals that the so called “top” of the species look down upon. If humankind is the top of the chain, death is coming for everyone.

  6. Thank you Tom, awesome piece! You mean our soldiers and military people are not the heroes we thought them to be but sorry victims of capitalism just like the workers in the rustbelt! Like Smedley Butler said, “War is a Racket”. Imagine if all this energy was put into ending global hunger, climate change, systemic racism, working to create a world where every life mattered including animals and plants what a different world it would be, I guess one can dream!

  7. Add to all the above the collapse of water and electrical service in Texas (and one of its senators skedaddling to Mexico… MEXICO, in a family flight from inconvenience). It’s much the same as our coping with the plague – not. Not even close.
    And through all this the market brags record highs. How can this be?
    The storming of the Capitol offers three culpable parties (not counting those there employed): Trump, the mob, and law enforcement… only the mob is been rounded up.
    Impeachment is the sagging stand-in for federal prosecution of Trump. I don’t have great hopes for either New York or Georgia, so, “Oh, well.”
    No competence, no accountability or responsibility, and no pain. Unless of course you’re not a ‘brand.’ Which in my opinion is quite other and the opposite of super-human.
    Engelhardt is right on, and the worst of it went unmentioned: In the face of our real-time disintegration the people in authority, the only ones, according to the flow of the system, who can do anything about it, will not be moved. Lazy? Stupid? Bubbled?
    What difference does it make?

    Let me add I’m reading “friendly Fascism” and it’s a bomb. Bertram Gross was a seer just about in the company of Mumford and Ellul.

  8. This article is insulting to roaches

    If anything is gonna survive what humans have done to this planet it’s the intrepid cockroach.

    America and roaches might as well be on either end of the resiliency spectrum.

  9. Most visitors to this site will agree with you, Tom, and not want to see the US, or any part of the world, head down this path. I live as part of this capitalist, consumer machine that is much of the world’s society: I depend on it for my basic needs and I don’t see direct alternatives I can jump to.

    If anyone knows a part of the world, where a city or nation of people are working towards a green future, that cares about people and the planet, please let know.

    It’s still hard to imagine, really, viscerally imagine, the world that will result from all this human created, profit driven activity: just as hard as the America of today was for people alive 30 years ago. Whatever I might read or try to argue with others, it’s still hard to really accept the devastation to people and the planet that is foreseen by articles like this. Many of the wealthy, or even upper middle-classes, live too well, and are not impacted (yet) by the deterioration of society and our ecology.

    I’ve just read an interview on Paul Jay’s, with a founder of RootsAction, Jeff Cohen (see He talks about how he and others have organized to influence Joe Biden and Congress, and the successes they’ve had. The general public needs to be at the level of a RootsAction campaigner, knowledgeable about domestic and foreign issues and the bigger picture of the military industrial complex, to really organize and change our culture.

  10. The decline and fall of the American Empire had been going on for long time. It almost ended a while ago. I doubt it can last much longer.

  11. “The American Century Ends Early”

    The American “Shining City On The Hill” now has the look of dirty streets emptied of life and energy, buildings falling apart in full states of deterioration, businesses closed, power and water shut off tight, mortgage loans in hopeless default with reams of foreclosure paperwork piled high to the sky at the ready, and lush prairie grasses and wild bushes and unruly vines quickly overtaking and reclaiming The Hill back for their own purposes.

    The critters that once roamed The Hill for centuries have watched and waited. They knew all They had to do was wait long enough. Sooner or late, The Hill would be theirs again. Now, it looks like any other hill with little evidence remaining that anything extraordinary ever happen there.

  12. It is definitely a heart shattering human tragedy when half a million, and counting, innocent Americans die unnecessarily, because of criminal conspiracy. But where is that same heartfelt American grief, for those many millions of innocents abroad, whose lives it shatters daily, by its inhumane interference in, and mistreatment, of the ‘other’ through its foreign policy?
    Let’s not quibble over the factual details here!
    President Biden makes a speech mourning this COVID-19 related loss of life; most unnecessarily:
    That’s what the likes of a Biden and his cohort in governance just don’t get! We are all, without exception, ordinary Americans (human beings). No one is more special, than another, under the symbolic ‘covers’ we wear.
    This is merely in the ego of the eye of the beholder speaking; seeing all Americans as “extraordinary”. However, this is but the political rhetoric of the notion of fork-tongued American exceptionalism, in action. “…We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic.” (WSJ) Isn’t this precisely what an economic foundation, based solely on an unbridled neoliberal corporate capitalism, has been promoting, domestically and globally, for generations now? Every living person of heart and sentience is reduced to a statistical matériel commodity, the value of which rests solely upon its utility to the private profits of the owners of this egregious system.
    This is the “bill of ‘goods’” that American’s have bought (have been forced to swallow) hook, line and sinker. America, as it is today; if not the global failed state, is the tragedy of the world.
    Does Mr. Biden, who obviously shows the grief he feels for his own flesh and blood, truly feel the same for all those other nameless innocents, both domestically and abroad that America kills and maims, either by proxy, or directly, in the name of humanity and democracy?
    The only “extraordinary” is the hypocrisy in the deception of the fact that they are unwilling, to see themselves as the perpetrators of the iniquity of the global tragedy that their inhumanity has brought about. This blindness, as to the polarity in conscience, comes about through the willful (egotistical) focus on short-term gain, for the few, and long-term draining of the many. And, by now, they have accrued the necessary power to proceed further, unimpeded… unless.
    Fill in the blank with broad imagination!

    1. Em – I so appreciate your heartful post…with Biden backtracking on $15 min wage, $2000 survival checks, respectful student loan forgiveness, and his establishing a new concentration camp for immigrant kids along with, apparently, letting the Post Office dissolve under Trump’s appointed head, it’s clearly up to us to stir up storms of protest. All of these are invitations for a return of a Trump-ite. For none adequately address the enormity of difficulties faced by our people.

      1. Selena – Your response is appreciated.
        Here’s a highly pertinent, recent, less than three minute, somewhat optimistic warning, that we are all one, in fact – “our people”.
        We humans are but one animal species of the entirety of the diversity of nature, which we had no hand in bringing about, yet which we, single handedly, are bringing to extinction.
        I wonder when – if; we are to endure on this planet, Homo-sapiens is ever going to come together in time to notice this crucial fact.
        Who is going to save us from ourselves, if not ourselves???

      2. Em – Agent Chaos is no dissident. He’s a con artist. Completely empty of any redeeming values for the good of humanity.He’s all about power. Inflated. Power obsessed. No developed heart. No affiliation with truth. So what happens when only power is in the room, and there is no truth and no heart?Tyranny.

      1. Thanks RR
        Apparently, once upon a time, a very long time ago – pre super technology and its derivative AI, history tells us that an ‘outlaw’ (law breaker/dissident) became a national hero.
        As things are proceeding today – up the well-trodden garden path, it seems likely that an ex-President lawbreaker; certainly no hero of mine, is showing how the history of ‘human nature’ may very well repeat, but at this time in ‘our’ history, to the irreversible detriment of not only humanity, but life in general, on the one planet we all call home.

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