The American condition
A recent summer sojourn teaching at Baruch College in New York afforded me an opportunity to assess the American condition in the age of Donald Trump. The diagnosis is not a happy one.
The death of outrage at Trump’s divisive and inflammatory rhetoric on the part of Republicans and many of his diehard supporters – a solid 35% of the electorate – has created an enabling environment for a climate of white supremacist storm-troopers to flourish, an issue which the Barack Obama administration has been criticised for not challenging more forcefully. Trump – behaving like a mad Aladdin unleashing demonic genies he is unable to put back in the lamp – notoriously condoned the actions of neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville in 2017.
The U.S. president has more recently kept migrant children in cages; kept their parents in squalid sanitary conditions; and launched raids to arrest illegal immigrants. He has spewed prejudiced poison at four black and brown rookie Democratic legislators nicknamed “the Squad” – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley – describing them as unpatriotic anti-Semitic Jew-haters for criticising Israel’s apartheid policies against Palestinians, and pressuring Tel Aviv to deny two of them visas, before asking them to go back to the crime-infested countries they came from. This is despite the fact that three of the women legislators were born in America, while one is a naturalised Somali-American. Trump also derided African-American Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings’s district in Baltimore – with a large black community – as “a disgusting rat and rodent infested mess,” employing language that dehumanised black citizens similar to his depiction of Africa and Haiti as “shit-holes” last year.
These events are a blowback from the eight-year presidency of the first blackman to inhabit the White House: Kenyan-Kansan, Barack Obama. As America’s demographics change and whites are set to become a minority by 2045, an irrational and incomprehensible “Great Replacement Theory” has been hatched in which whites are due to be replaced by a coalition of Hispanics and Blacks as part of a Jewish master-plan. In this outlandish conspiracy theory, immigration is described as “white genocide.” This charged political environment has led to countless tragedies: a 19-year old anti-Semite killed three people in Gilroy, California in July, while a 21-year old whiteman who killed 20 mostly Hispanic Walmart shoppers in the Texan town of El Paso this month echoed Trumpian ideas of an “invasion,” having earlier expressed his wish to kill as many “Mexicans” as possible.
This is ironic considering that Hispanics have lived peacefully in El Paso for centuries, and the U.S. actually stole the territory of Texas from Mexico in 1836. Another 24-year old white “lone wolf” attacker, using a similar military-style assault rifle as the El Paso gunman, killed nine mostly black people in Dayton, Ohio. Despite the continuing paranoia about “Islamic terrorists” in the American imagination, over 70% of the 427 extremist-related killings in the U.S. over the last decade have in fact been committed by these right-wing terrorists.
The rise of right-wing white supremacy is closely related to Trump’s racist rhetoric. The widespread proliferation of individual guns – based on an antiquated constitutional “right to bear arms” – has made the U.S. the only rich country that allows the mass slaughter of its citizens without effective action being taken to ban these dangerous weapons. This situation also says much about America’s system of legalised corruption in which lobby groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) can literally buy legislators. Republican lawmakers absurdly rushed to blame videogames for the latest carnage. Even Trump has seemed to be reading from the NRA’s talking points in offering ludicrous suggestions like arming teachers in schools and taking guns from mentally ill people. These are views that the leader of no other Western democracy could utter without being forced out of office.
A major paradox at the heart of American politics is that though most people support the rich paying more taxes to support programmes such as social security and healthcare, Republicans have consistently cut these programmes while passing tax cuts for the super-rich. Just as with a lack of gun control, the U.S. remains the only rich country in the world without some version of universal health coverage.
America’s economics Nobel laureate, Paul Krugman, has noted that the Republicans’ massive tax cuts of 2017 have largely benefitted very wealthy individuals, as well as greedy corporations which have mostly used tax savings to buy back their own stock. This is despite promises to create jobs, increase business investment, and spread wealth. Krugman described the profligate tax cuts as a “sugar high” which are expected to result in a $1 trillion budget deficit this year (up from $600 billion in 2016), even as America’s crumbling infrastructure has failed to keep up with the likes of China and Japan. As Krugman laconically observed: “Trumponomics has been a big flop.” The reckless Tax-cutting Tariff-man – surrounded by mostly economically illiterate advisers – has also acted as a Protectionist President waging a senseless and self-destructive trade war with China that has failed to revive American manufacturing and could actually slow world growth. A strong economy is an issue on which Trump was banking to ensure his re-election. Some economists, however, predict a recession, which could well sink his prospects for a second term in office.
America’s corporate media has also played a harmful role in miseducating many generally hospitable and kind-hearted citizens. Liberal channels like CNN and MSNBC represent an echo chamber in which talking heads of similar ideological beliefs are invited to confirm each other’s views. Many of these pundits are often washed-up politicians and policymakers, former government aides who served in fairly lowly positions, or journalists interviewing themselves. Fox News and toxic radio show hosts like Rush Limbaugh spew similar ideological verbiage from a conservative perspective, inviting their friends to join their own echo chamber. This tedious Punch and Judy show incredibly goes on incessantly with little international news, punctuated only by sporadic commercial breaks in which American consumers are invited to buy goods they mostly do not need.
The Democratic Primaries to pick a presidential candidate to face off against Trump in November 2020 has seen lively debates between two dozen candidates in a crowded field. The leading candidate is the avuncular 76-year old Joe Biden, Obama’s loyal vice-president for eight years. Some see him as a safe pair of hands, while others fear that he is too old and gaffe-prone. Biden, however, seems to be the most experienced, well known, and moderate candidate, and perhaps the only one that can defeat Trump in a national race. It would take a spectacular stumble for him to lose his lead in the primaries, though there are still 10 months to go before the concluding primary race. If elected at the age of 77 (Trump himself would be 74), Biden would need a solid vice-president to hand the presidential baton to, probably after a solitary presidential term. Such a single four-year tenure would presumably not be pre-announced for fear of being rendered a lame duck from the start of a potential Biden presidency.
Elizabeth Warren has promised “big, systemic change”, but the Massachusetts Senator is seen as too leftist – “liberal” in America’s bizarre political lexicon – with an elitist professorial background from Harvard University. Many feel that the misogyny among voters that partly sunk Hillary Clinton’s candidacy against Trump in 2016 could also sink Warren’s. The candidate’s exaggerated claims about her Native American ancestry would also lead to continuing ridicule by Trump who has already dubbed her “Pocahontas.” The 77-year old socialist pitchfork proselytiser, Bernie Sanders, is again promising “political revolution” with quixotic policies such as “Medicare and College for all.” The two black candidates – Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker – have been disappointing on the hustings. The Democrats, however, would have a strong bench for a solid cabinet, with these candidates, as well as Obama’s impressive former housing secretary, Julián Castro, the precocious 37-year old Pete Buttigieg, and the wonkish Jay Inslee.
The hope of many progressive, cosmopolitan citizens is that one of these Democrats will rid the country and the world of this troublesome president, and start healing some of the wounds that have made America’s body politic so febrile.
Prof. Adebajo, director, Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.