Is America descending into a failed state?

Francis Fukuyama claimed, ‘America’s political rot is infecting the world order. This could be as big as the Soviet collapse.’

LONDON: Social media erupted last week in disbelief. “This is America. Arresting journalists for doing their job doesn’t happen here. Peaceful protesters don’t get tear-gassed.” Oh yes they do. “Presidents don’t threaten to unleash troops on those protesting against killing and oppression. This is America.” Oh yes he did.

As President Donald Trump morphs into a version of Benito Mussolini, according to former US ambassador Tony Garner last week, the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll reported that 80% of respondents agreed that their country was “out of control”. Friends of America are dismayed by the latest turn of events, a sign of terminal decline of a once proud nation.

Racism is a problem in many countries, not least in Britain, but in America it’s widespread and even subconscious in the southern “slave states”. The four-year American Civil War, which began almost 160 years ago, was primarily as a result of the long-standing controversy over the enslavement of black people. Remnants of the ultra-racist Ku Klux Klan (KKK) still exist today in America’s southern states. Even Donald Trump’s father is tainted. On Memorial Day in 1927 he was arrested as 1,000 white-robed Klansmen marched through the New York Borough of Queens. A contemporaneous news account reported that “Fred Trump was detained on charges of refusing to disperse from a parade, assembled by the KKK, when ordered to do so”. Donald Trump, born 19 years after the event, has always denied that his father was arrested or had anything to do with the KKK.

Police brutality, protected by qualified legal immunity, and racism have proved a lethal cocktail in America. White knees have been on black necks for years. For many Blacks, the “American Dream” is not to be murdered by white policemen. In the past year, 1,004 people were shot and killed by the police, the rate of black killings being more than twice that for white.

A country in such trouble requires a leader who has the ability to bring people together. Unfortunately, America has the exact opposite. President Trump’s strategy has always been to deny America’s black population the human rights it extends to its white one, and whenever it is caught doing so graphically, brutally, undeniably on camera, convinces itself that this is the exception and not the norm. Many are wondering what the verdict on George Floyd’s death might have been if the incident had not been caught on a mobile phone. Steve Jobs has done as much for the victims of racism as any law.

It’s not just racism, which is dividing America. American people are highly diverse along every conceivable axis; racially, ethnically, religiously, geographically, and culturally. With the correct leadership, this diversity could be a source of great strength. Instead, the divisive leadership of successive Republican Presidents, ameliorated partially by Democratic President Barack Obama, over the past 30 years and culminating in the Divider-in-Chief, Donald Trump, has created enormous fault lines in every direction of society. As the former Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, said on CNN last week: “Donald Trump is the first President in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people.” Even President Nixon met with Vietnam protestors at the Lincoln Memorial in 1970.

The combination of Trump’s rhetoric, the bloodlust of the Republicans spoiling for a fight, the police with clear orders and appetite to stifle protest, and emboldened white supremacists, have heaped provocation on a nation that was already a tinderbox after three years of Trump-related polarisation. Even when Trump doesn’t openly embrace the white supremacists’ cause (although in Charlottesville he called them “very fine people”) he is often their ally due to the polarisation in which he revels.

By any measure, Congress is also currently polarised more than at any time in living memory. There have always been differences in the visions of the two main political parties in America. Republicans traditionally argue for a small state and lower taxes, Democrats preferring a more socially equal society. But there has usually existed a middle consensus, providing an overlap for a bipartisan agreement on the way forward. In the past 20 years, election results have created a polarised Congress where the most liberal Republican is considerably more conservative than the most conservative Democrat. The result is a huge gap between the 2 Parties, preventing any bipartisan agreement, a gap magnified by money and lobbyists.

America has seen the rise of a large number of wealthy and well-organised interest groups, corporate lobbyists and donors, who can on their own raise nearly as much money as either one of the two main parties. The amount of money in American politics, including untold amounts from abroad, has more than doubled since the late 1990s.This money gives lobbyists far greater access to legislators, buying influence which can potentially veto action by the legislature against the interests of the donors. This access was institutionalised by the US Supreme Court in 1976, when it ruled that political donations and spending on lobbying are a form of free speech and therefore constitutionally protected by the First Amendment. Money therefore can buy votes in America, a power denied to the vast majority of the population, thereby sustaining inequality.

Inequality in America has risen substantially over the past generation. The gapbetween the richest and poorest in American society more than doubled from 1989 to 2016, with deadly effects. The economist and former US Secretary of Labour, Robert Reich, has argued that income inequality is the defining issue for the United States. The top wealthiest 1% possess 40% of the nation’s wealth; the bottom 80% own 7%. Put another way, the average employee has to work more than a month to earn what the CEO earns in one hour.

There are 630 billionaires in America, whose wealth this year totalled $3.4 trillion. According to the Forbes rankings, the 400 richest Americans have as much combined wealth as the poorest 64% American households. While most Americans are poorer as a result of the coronavirus, US billionaires are $565 billion richer since 18 March. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is $36 billion richer, while Facebook’s Mark Zukerburg’s net worth went up by $30 billion. All this while millions of impoverished Americans are queuing at food banks in order to survive.

Inequality in wealth leads to inequality in health. Trump’s attack on Obamacare, just because it was one of the great achievements of the Obama administration, has increased the cost of health provision for most citizens. When Americans need medical treatment, their bank balances are examined before they are. If you can afford it, or if it is provided by your employer, insurance will cover much if not all the costs, which can be considerable. The news outlet, Denver7, reported last week that a man in Colorado who spent two weeks in hospital fighting and beating the coronavirus, received his first itemized statement for the cost of his care: $840,386! The total final bill is expected to top one and a half million dollars. The median household wealth for a black family in America is $17,150, according to the Brookings Institute, so obtaining any healthcare is a challenge, even with Medicaid. Some 14.4% of black Americans lacked health care coverage in 2018, compared with only 8.6% of whites.

Historians have long debated the exact moment when great nations start their terminal decline. The Soviet Union was rotten for many years before it collapsed in 1991. Its leader in 1984, Yuri Andropov, sensed that the country was in a steep decline years earlier when he was head of the notorious KGB. At the time he ordered his agents, one of whom was Vladimir Putin, to funnel huge sums of “black cash” into untraceable accounts abroad in order to prepare for life after the anticipated collapse. A chunk of the “black cash” was spent in supportingDonald Trump’s failing property businesses, although the exact details will not be known until his financial returns are revealed, as promised in the run up to the 2016 presidential elections. In a curious twist of history, Trump now finds himself leading a failing state, though ending as the Soviet Union is unlikely, although not impossible.

America’s decline and potential collapse was forecast by the renowned American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, in December 2016 following the shock victory of what he called “the buffoonish fringe candidate”, Donald Trump. “America’s political rot is infecting the world order. This could be as big as the Soviet collapse”, he claimed in Prospect Magazine. Recognising that the result had roots which ran deep in American society, Fukuyama analysed the prospect of “assertive and yet more insular politics, potentially creating the space for other powers to fill”, adding that “the world as a whole could soon have to grapple with the consequences of America’s retreat”.

Well, we all know how well that prophetic comment is working out. America has largely surrendered its manufacturing capacity to a rival growing power, China, which instead of reciprocating according to the calculations of the neoliberal theorists, practised a traditional and ruthless mercantilism in pursuit of its own interest. America’s white working class did not educate or train itself up the food chain and largely remained unemployed, only to be exploited by the empty promises of Donald Trump.

So, can a country so hugely polarised in politics, race, wealth and health, avoid descending into the realms of a failed state? Opinion is divided as the country approaches a critical election in November, which pits two gerontocrats of dubious mental acuity against each other, resembling the late Soviet era before the regime collapsed under its own absurdities. If Donald Trump wins, always a possibility due to the unfair method of Electoral College voting, where “winner takes all”, America will quickly become an autocratic state, increasingly resembling Russia. Trump has always envied Putin’s power. Already the Founding Fathers’ system of check and balances is malfunctioning, with a highly politicised Supreme Court, a Department of Justice in the pocket of the President and a supine Republican Party in Congress, whose members are terrified of being mocked by presidential tweets. Congress leader, Mitch McConnell and his Republican minions have essentially given the President carte blanche to ignore constitutional norms. If the impeached President Trump is awarded a further four years, the chasms in society will become unbridgeable, with dire consequences. America will be in a very dark place.

If Biden wins, although on Wednesday he said his biggest fear is that Trump will try to steal the election, there is the possibility of reversing the descent. But Donald Trump will not go quietly; he is pathologically incapable of admitting defeat. He even refused to accept that he had lost the popular vote in 2016, which he did by 3 million votes, claiming electoral fraud. For nearly 250 years, US Presidents have respected the law. Even when electoral defeat has been unexpected and ignominious, Presidents have passed the baton without acrimony.

Will Donald Trump? A frightening and plausible scenario would be if his defeat inspired extremist supporters to engage in violence. A defeated Donald Trump would almost certainly tweet that the election was rigged or contaminated by the chaos of the pandemic, a message which would be amplified by the right-wing media such as Fox News. This would inspire Trump extremists to carry out deadly acts of violence against the new administration, with disastrous consequences. If you consider this unlikely, take a look at the Trump-loving disinformation movement QAnon, or white supremacist Boogaloo, the new far-right slang for US civil war.

If Donald Trump should fail in his final duty as President to transfer power peacefully, the nation’s laws and institutions will be responsible for carrying out the will of the electorate. Should those fail, too, then the American experiment’s greatest achievement will come to a grinding halt, and with it the hope that a Republic can ever be kept.

Whatever the result of the November election, America will remain hopelessly divided and on course to become a failed state.

John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998.


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