30 August 2020

Rolling Stone: “The Unraveling of America”

Odious as he may be, Trump is less the cause of America’s decline than a product of its descent. As they stare into the mirror and perceive only the myth of their exceptionalism, Americans remain almost bizarrely incapable of seeing what has actually become of their country. The republic that defined the free flow of information as the life blood of democracy, today ranks 45th among nations when it comes to press freedom. In a land that once welcomed the huddled masses of the world, more people today favor building a wall along the southern border than supporting health care and protection for the undocumented mothers and children arriving in desperation at its doors. In a complete abandonment of the collective good, U.S. laws define freedom as an individual’s inalienable right to own a personal arsenal of weaponry, a natural entitlement that trumps even the safety of children; in the past decade alone 346 American students and teachers have been shot on school grounds.

Wade Davis

Over the past months I have shared many articles about the declining political and economic situation in the Unites States and it feels I should stop at some point, but I think this one presents the case most clearly. As with other crises, the pandemic is accelerating existing trends, revealing systemic weaknesses and failures that have gone unnoticed or unaddressed for decades.

Tattered flag New York City skyline
The COVID crisis has reduced to tatters the idea of American exceptionalism. Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

How can the rest of the world expect America to lead on global threats — climate change, the extinction crisis, pandemics — when the country no longer has a sense of benign purpose, or collective well-being, even within its own national community? Flag-wrapped patriotism is no substitute for compassion; anger and hostility no match for love. Those who flock to beaches, bars, and political rallies, putting their fellow citizens at risk, are not exercising freedom; they are displaying, as one commentator has noted, the weakness of a people who lack both the stoicism to endure the pandemic and the fortitude to defeat it.

Donald Trump aside, the greatest issue seems to be the increased polarization, even tribalism, of American society. Even if Hilary Clinton would have won the Presidency in 2016, I doubt she could have accomplished much against fierce Republican opposition. It’s terrible to imagine, but I am becoming increasingly certain the US would have had a difficult time organizing a coherent pandemic response under President Clinton as well because Republican governors would have stubbornly refused to accept guidance from a Democratic President – and a woman on top of that! There would have been a Republican presidential candidate, possibly Donald Trump for the second time, encouraging them to disobey ‘liberal hoaxes’ meant to ‘reduce your freedoms’. From this perspective, the road ahead looks increasingly difficult, even if Donald Trump were to be removed from office in the upcoming elections.

That social democracy will never take hold in the United States may well be true, but, if so, it is a stunning indictment, and just what Oscar Wilde had in mind when he quipped that the United States was the only country to go from barbarism to decadence without passing through civilization.

Evidence of such terminal decadence is the choice that so many Americans made in 2016 to prioritize their personal indignations, placing their own resentments above any concerns for the fate of the country and the world, as they rushed to elect a man whose only credential for the job was his willingness to give voice to their hatreds, validate their anger, and target their enemies, real or imagined. One shudders to think of what it will mean to the world if Americans in November, knowing all that they do, elect to keep such a man in political power. But even should Trump be resoundingly defeated, it’s not at all clear that such a profoundly polarized nation will be able to find a way forward. For better or for worse, America has had its time.

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