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Donald Trump’s Disunited States threaten the free world

Police hold a perimeter near the White House as demonstrators gather to protest the killing of George Floyd in the morning hours on May 31, 2020 in Washington, DC. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

The worst is yet to come for the US, warns JOHN KAMPFNER, and its possible demise threatens the entire western order.

Is America a failed state? I ask the question not to gloat. When the beacon of the free world descends into violence, sickness, division and impoverishment, when it suffers from an abandonment of leadership, when the basic functions of state and service collapse, the consequences go far beyond its borders.

For a century or more the United States has been the lodestar. As the poem at the Statue of Liberty proclaims: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ Its entrepreneurialism attracted the ambitious; its free spirit provided hope for those constrained by the old world. Its culture became everyone’s culture.

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal set the standard for economic revival. America’s entry into the Second World War turned the tide against fascism. John F Kennedy’s visit to Berlin galvanised the city on the frontline of the Cold War.

Now all one hears about is the 100,000 dead and rising and the refrigerated trucks waiting to load more corpses. Or this on the early days of the pandemic: ‘Civilians took out their sewing machines to try to keep ill-equipped hospital workers healthy and their patients alive. Russia, Taiwan and the United Nations sent humanitarian aid to the world’s richest power – a beggar nation in utter chaos.’ So writes George Packer in the latest issue of Atlantic.

His excoriating essay was published before the death of George Floyd, as he was being arrested by police officers in Minneapolis, and the violent protests that have followed in dozens of cities.

In a programme I am presenting on BBC Radio 4, I look at the effects of Covid-19 on authoritarian regimes, populists and still-functioning democracies.

There is no need here to rehearse the record of Donald J Trump. But it is important to look ahead to the vital next six months. That the president has stoked the racial tensions comes as no surprise.

It is part instinct, part political calculation. Everything hangs on the November election. For the first time, many people fear for the very future of the political system.

Will Trump try to cancel or postpone the vote, citing the pandemic? After all, at least 62 countries have called off elections or referendums in the three months from the middle of February.

One person’s political whim is another’s act of responsible risk management. When Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, chief adviser and monument to nepotism and dilettantism, suggested a few weeks ago that he couldn’t commit one way or the other to the elections going ahead on time, he was quickly corrected by the White House.

This was not a slip of the tongue, rather a classic case of Trump flying a kite – raising a difficult issue through a proxy to see how it goes down with the public.

Even if the election goes ahead on time, will the president and his machine try other forms of manipulation? The ultra-nationalistic Polish government has tried to impose postal ballots for its forthcoming vote.

The possibilities for voting rigging are tantalising. Even to consider any of this in the context of the United States is to invite comparisons with Putin’s Russia. Except that America’s voting system has long been dysfunctional.

The electoral college produces results that distort the popular vote, as in the case of Trump in 2016 and even more insidiously with George W Bush’s infamous defeat of Al Gore in 2000 thanks to the ‘hanging chads’ in Florida and the politically-appointed Supreme Court judges who turned a blind eye to what would have been denounced as vote rigging if it had taken place in other countries. Whenever and however the vote takes place, expect Trump in the interim to fuel further discord in order to galvanise his base. That is all he needs to win, as long as he keeps all of them on board, particularly as he knows that many younger, more radical Democrats won’t bother to vote for Joe Biden.

Therefore, Trump needs to feed a sense of alarm, of a country on the brink, in hoc to the enemy. He will be quietly satisfied by what he is seeing with the breakdown of law and order in big cities; he will be even more pleased by the protests against lockdown.

In the next few weeks and months this will be the defining issue – freedom-loving, gun-toting Americans versus the pernicious socialist nanny state. The scenes from a month ago of a small number of men with swastikas, Confederate flags, nooses and assault rifles storming the Michigan state capitol to protest against the extension of restrictions played perfectly into this narrative.

Worse is yet to come. The colossal and sudden rise in unemployment, which has reached heights not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s, is being blamed by Trump’s followers on the overzealous state, telling people they can’t earn an honest crust while state governors prevent them from working.

Even when the first wave begins to ebb, chances are perhaps even greater that a second spike will afflict the US more than most, given the propensity to conspiracy theories and miracle cures on that part of the population that is fed on anti-vax rumours.

And what of social divisions? The demographics of death, from Singapore to Spain, suggest migrant and manual labour has been hit hardest by Covid-19. Health inequality around the world has been rising for decades, no more so than in America.

The pandemic has not caused any of the social ills, even if it has sharply accelerated them. The poor and particularly non-whites are the ones doing the essential work, while the wealthier ponder the stresses of Zoom meetings and sneaking off to their second homes.

As Packer writes: ‘In a smartphone economy that hides whole classes of human beings, we’re learning where our food and goods come from, who keeps us alive. An order of organic baby arugula on AmazonFresh is cheap and arrives overnight in part because the people who grow it, sort it, pack it and deliver it have to keep working while sick.’

Apart from those living off trusts or inheritances, the under-40s are set to be poorer than their parents. And for their children it is set to be worse still.

That is not confined to one country, but America was the dream for people who hadn’t actually been there. The decline in the appeal of the American model has been precipitous.

To be fair to Trump, most of America’s woes long predate him. The health system, such as there is, was always going to be exposed by a pandemic. Coronavirus has overtaken the opioid epidemic as the biggest killer. Barack Obama’s attempts to reform healthcare would have provided limited balm.

The school system is sclerotic, usually enhancing division. Infrastructure, particularly that part that is federal and not controlled by individual states, belongs more to a developing country. The two areas of still-unrivalled success – its universities and its tech sector – are beginning to face sterner competition from China and elsewhere.

This is the third calamity to afflict the United States in two decades of the new millennium. When the Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11, the world rallied. Bush then squandered the goodwill by attacking the wrong enemy in Saddam Hussein. The financial crisis of 2008 nearly brought the world’s economies to a standstill. The banking sector was bailed out and saved, but the culprits were never seriously pursued. Once again, the wrong conclusions
were drawn, and the wrong people suffered.

One of the great ironies of Covid-19 is that the country where it all started, China, is set to be its main beneficiary. The propaganda points it has scored by sending protective personal equipment and other vital supplies have been unseemly but effective. Few countries are seeking to emulate the Chinese model of development, but that is not its purpose. China’s supposed largesse is not designed to convert, but to secure strategic dependencies from which it will be hard for countries to extricate themselves.

America’s self-absorption and societal implosion makes that task blissfully easy. America’s demise threatens the entire liberal democratic order.

In my documentary, Anne Applebaum, the American journalist and author ponders the end of her country’s democracy. The founding fathers did what they could to insulate it from danger, without and within. ‘They all read Cicero, they all tried to understand why the Roman Republic had fallen and they tried to write a constitution that would prevent that from happening,’ she says. ‘We’ve forgotten our Roman history, we’ve forgotten our 19th century history, we’ve forgotten our early 20th century history – all of which tells us that democracies periodically do get overthrown and periodically do fail. Ours can too.’

Can it be stopped? The road to November will provide some of the answers. If Trump loses and leaves the White House gracefully, the slow road to recovery could begin. But it will take years of both courage and conciliation. It is more likely that if he loses, he will not go down without a fight – challenging the results and using the three months of transition to try to undermine the fabric of the system. If he wins, by fair means or foul, spare a thought for Americans, all of them, but particularly those who will suffer most.

John Kampfner presents The Smack of Firm Leadership on Analysis, BBC Radio 4 on Monday June 8 at 8.30pm and repeated on Sunday June 14 at 9.30pm

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