Letter from America: Let’s Stop Looking to America for the Future

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, October 30th 2019

‘You don’t know how lucky you are. Never take your democracy for granted. You don’t realise what it’s worth until it’s too late.’

Mikola Statkevich, former Belarusian Presidential candidate, 2015

America likes to think of itself as the shining light on the hill, as the exemplar in the whole world of life, liberty and happiness. Yet the America of today is increasingly turning it back on such a version of itself.

This is a dysfunctional, divided, unhappy society, increasingly not at ease with itself, let alone the wider world. Whereas once America offered the vision of a society of upward prosperity, supposed classlessness and life chances, it now looks like a version of a future which no longer works for most. In this its fraught politics mirror a society and capitalism which only work for the elites.

On the surface American society, whether prosperous city centres, places of tech innovation and comfortable suburbs, still seems to work. This is after all still the richest country in the world in terms of GDP according to IMF figures for 2019. But in terms of GDP per capita it is seventh and slowly slipping – with Luxembourg in first place, followed by Norway, Switzerland and Ireland.

Whatever happened to ‘the American dream’?

The flipside of ‘the American dream’ is increasingly dark and violent. In 2017 39,773 Americans were killed as a result of gun violence, the highest figure since 1968 – which amounts to a figure of 10.6 deaths per 100,000 population.

These are the highest gun death figures per head anywhere in the developed world – with the exception of Greenland. The UK comes out with the seventh lowest rates anywhere in the world – for both developed and underdeveloped. In actual numbers of people killed the US has the second anywhere in the world – the only country more violent being Brazil.

London, caricatured by Donald Trump as a ‘stab city’ – when he retweeted Katie Hopkins – is a place of relative peace compared to American cities. London had a homicide rate of 1.6 per 100,000 in 2017 with 140 deaths. Every one of the 30 major US cities had a higher rate – from New York at more than double London (3.4) to the three highest – Chicago (24.1), Detroit (39.8) and Baltimore (55.8).

The US is the only developed society without comprehensive health coverage with 27.5 million citizens in 2018 having no health insurance – 8.5% of the population. Many more millions are underinsured as they cannot afford the payments to make sure they have full coverage.

The country is 54th in the world in life expectancy levels according to the CIA – with an average of 78.8 years; the UK doesn’t fair that well either at 35th and 80.8 years. Even more starkly it has one of the most pronounced health divides anywhere. In Chicago the life expectancy gap between Streeterville in the north and Englewood in the south – a mere nine miles – was a staggering thirty years in 2019: 90 in the north and 60 in the south.

There is also the scale of US incarceration – with 2.3 million people currently in jail. A country which contains 4.4% of the world’s population has a staggering 22% of the global prison population – and as of July 2019 it has the highest prison rate per 100,000 anywhere in the world at 655, ahead of El Salvador and Thailand.

Finally, in a country which prides itself on its democracy that claim is now threadbare. A 2012 study found 51 million Americans are not registered to vote – 24% of all eligible voters. This in a country where Trump became President in 2016 with 62.98 million votes and Hillary Clinton lost with 65.85 million votes.

The missing America is younger, poorer and from non-white communities. Forty-one percent of young adults are not registered to vote, neither are 30% of African-Americans, 40% of Hispanics and 45% of Asian-Americans. All of this distorts American politics into a battle between and for older, middle class voters – not of wider society. And that is before we touch on the Republicans and their brazen attempts at voter suppression.

This is the backdrop to America’s fractured, failing and self-destructive politics. The political system is increasingly driven by special interests, lobbyists, corporate capitalism and huge monies – all of which have congealed in a system of kleptocratic authoritarianism which has similarities with that of other partial democracies around the world such as Putin’s Russia.

The Descent to the Trump Presidency

The Trump Presidency has had a spellbinding effect on large parts of America – including supporters and opponents. The emergence of Trump and the accommodation of the Republicans with him reveals much about both main parties.

Trump is a grotesque culmination of the Republican ‘war on government’ that took off seriously with Ronald Reagan but goes back for inspiration to Barry Goldwater in 1964. If you spend decades preaching that government is only ever the problem and should get out of the way of people running their own lives – as Newt Gingrich said in response to Bill Clinton in the 1990s – you end up making Trump possible.

There is also the white nationalism of part of the Republican coalition, which exploded with the arrival of Barack Obama as President and Trump’s legitimation of the ‘birther’ conspiracy theories that Obama was not American.

Another way of seeing Trump is through the lens of TV reality shows. This after all is how Trump became a major household figure, being the star of the US series ‘The Apprentice’ and his phrase ‘You’re fired’ entering everyday language. Trump conceived of running for the Republican nomination and then President, not thinking he would win either, but as a media, marketing and monetising exercise. Even the way he campaigned – and continues to campaign is in this style with opponents reduced to caricatures – ‘crooked Hillary’ (Clinton) and ‘sleepy Joe’ (Biden) – straight from a cheap, tawdry TV show going after ratings by sensationalism.

Five Trump Futures

The Trump phenomenon is in many respects unprecedented and taking American politics into unchartered waters. With impeachment proceeding and the 2020 Presidential election coming here are five possible Trump and American futures.

  1. Wounded Trump: Failed Impeachment

The Trump impeachment wins a House majority but fails to win a two-thirds Senate vote. Trump runs in 2020 wounded and hurt, prepared to bring down the entire constitutional order and trash every convention in public life to try to win by any means necessary. Whatever the result, huge damage is done to American institutions, government and due process that may prove irretrievable.

  1. Broken Trump: Successful Impeachment

Trump is impeached by the House and the Senate. This is after all what should happen politically and constitutionally. The charge sheet against Trump on the Ukraine is so serious that many political commentators believe it is much more a case for impeachment than Watergate and that this will become more and more self-evident. Yet, as of late 2020 the Republican Party so far refuses to break with Trump and may in the end be brought down with him.

  1. Calculating Trump: Standing Down in 2020

This is the outlier. Trump decides not to run again in 2020. Remember his motives for originally running to be President were not first and foremost political. Instead, they were about monetising the Trump brand and looking to lever more profitable deals based on his increased profile. It could just be possible that Trump, who will be 74 next year, decides to cash his chips in next year and return to his original plan. I don’t expect it, partly because a former President could be indicted for conduct that occurred while in office.

  1. Vengeful Trump: Trump loses 2020 and disputes the result

Trump is and always has been unpopular. He lost the popular vote in 2016 and has only been able to appeal as President to Republican true believers and there aren’t enough of them to guarantee him winning in 2020. If the Democrats get their act together they have a historic chance of winning big next year. But if they win by a small margin many worry that Trump will dispute the result. This could see him challenge the result legally and not voluntarily leave the White House. This would be a crisis of the republic and is possible considering Trump has shown no understanding of the constitution or democracy.

  1. Vindictive Trump: Trump wins 2020

This is the nightmare scenario. Trump wins in 2020 playing as dirty as he can: vilifying and trashing opponents, throwing up all kinds of scandals and invective, and destabilising public life. If he wins any constraint, which at the moment the future 2020 contest has on him, will be removed and he would be free to be fully unreconstructed and vindictive – scattering his opponents and people who have got in his way. This would be a watershed moment for the twilight of American democracy and one from which the US might never recover.

The lamentable role of the Democrats, both historically and contemporaneously, in this saga cannot go without noting their culpability. That goes for all wings of the party: the supposedly ‘moderate’ leadership of Nancy Pelosi in the House and the ‘young radicals’. Missing from many Democrat national debates is how to put together a majority coalition of state, House and Senate, as well at Presidential level. No amount of radical and detailed policy plans will count for anything unless you have political power at every level of government.

The Democratic Presidential contest is a manifestation of the confusion at the heart of the party. Trump has taken full advantage of this, posing a world in which the Democrats as a party of process, rules and law, are opposed by a party which does not play by the rules, ignores process and seizes any advantage it can to win no matter how ugly. Sadly this Republican trait did not begin with Trump, but rather made him possible. For example in December 2000 the Bush v Gore Supreme Court 5-4 decision stopped the voter count in Florida, awarded the state to Bush, and hence the Presidency, all of which had been aided by Republican bullying and intimidation in the state of Florida.

The current Democratic frontrunners – Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg – are inducing anxiety and worry in the party due to their inability to campaign and win that some are considering the last resort of going back to Hillary Clinton. This will not happen but such is the desperation that Clinton is rated with the bookies of a 7% chance of the nomination – a mere one percent behind Sanders.

Four of the five are in their 70s: Warren (70), Biden (76), Sanders (78), Clinton (72) with Buttigieg the exception at 37. That is a combined age of 333 years between the five – and an average of 66.6 years, the sort of gerontocracy with which people used to caricature the Rolling Stones. What is missing in the Democrats are any candidates in their 40s, 50s or 60s – testimony to the failure of the party to grow a senior leadership in the past two decades; a period including the Clinton and Obama presidencies.

The bigger question behind the Democrat contest and combating Trump is when was this party last the future? When were the Democrats last sure footed in what they stood for, who they spoke for, and were confident in how they articulated their politics and ideas of America? The last time arguably was the promise of JFK’s ‘New Frontier’ in the early 1960s, and following that LBJ’s ‘New Frontier’ in the mid-1960s.

These both turned out to be false dawns that crumbled in the face of the ‘New Deal’ Democratic coalition fracturing, the rightward lurch of US politics, opposition from radicals on right and left, the civil rights movement and backlash to it, and the Vietnam war. This has been a party which has been on the defensive for decades and hasn’t experienced defining the long-term political zeitgeist since the 1930s and 1940s.

The Democrats have many advantages. They have demographics on their side. They have the self-destructive politics of Trump and his apologists. They have the fact that American capitalism no longer works for most people and ‘the American dream’ is increasingly broken.

But Trump is a warning of a future if the Democrats don’t change how they do politics. When the Trump era finally ends politics in America will not return to sanity. Some still think it will. Bill Weld, contesting the Republican nomination for 2020 against Trump says that after this President goes people will say: ‘That was a bad dream. Is it safe to come out now? So I don’t think his influence is going to be permanent.’

That is naïve and part of America sleepwalking to disaster. We have to hope that enough of the country wakes up before next November, and that enough Republicans find some moral fibre and that the Democrats can remember what they stand for. As for the rest of us it is time to stop looking to America as our inspiration or future. Instead, it should be a warning of what can happen when politics stop working for the majority and becomes the preserve of a self-aggrandising tiny minority.