“When the roots of a tree begin to rot, they spread death to the branches”. African proverb
It is tempting to poke at the current state of the United States of America and derive justifiable or perverse pleasure at the distress of a nation that resembles a bully who is thoroughly humbled or dusted. This is not one of such tempting thrashings. The developing situation around the democratic traditions and values of the US is too serious to be made fun of. It is a very serious challenge to the democratic system in all its variants and imperfections, a system we are bound within a fundamental manner. How the US deals with this current challenge to its foundations and credibility will impact a world it is substantially responsible for shaping. A weakened America scrambling to come to terms with the basics of democracy will threaten a world in which it has unparalleled influence, while a new world order without the dominant presence of the US will not easily step up. The world watching the gripping drama for the soul of America is not wasting its time. Friends and foes know that this is one of those moments in history that reminds humanity how frail its arrangements and systems are, and how it must never rule out the possibilities of lurking threats or opportunities at every turn.
Like all human societies, America was built on stresses and tensions, and its history in, particular, is a study in man’s struggles to achieve progress by the manner these tensions and stresses are resolved by creating the foundations of new threats and opportunities. The nation’s modern foundations were laid by strands, which spoke of one of the highest ideals of humanity. One was to live under the freedom from oppression and rights to freedom of worship. However, to take root in a strange land, it involved the virtual extermination of an indigenous population and expropriation of its land and negation of its culture, a basic negation of the edifying philosophy of the universality of the rights of the human being to live in dignity. The seeds of a capitalist system that released unprecedented energy to build a new economy were watered by the worst crime that mankind had committed: enslaving another race from another continent and putting them to work to build the foundations of a modern economy, which had no place for them. America had to fight a civil war to resolve a basic contradiction over what type of capitalism it wanted. One side won and the nation moved on to other battles to wrest more of the dreams of founding fathers from an establishment that was notoriously resistant to major changes.
Modern America championed freedom, but fought vicious wars to compel other peoples to adopt its versions of freedom. It had a glorious history of fighting for its own independence, and an inglorious history of propping up imperialism, racism and neo-colonialism against others. It built a powerful economy by tolerating extremes of wealth and poverty, the latter bearing the imprint of the black and other non-white races. It welcomed and provided opportunities for people from Europe to live the American dream while its poor citizens lived a nightmare of an existence in a nation that had little compassion for the weak or the poor. It espoused lofty ideals of equality under the law and justice for all, but lived with systemic racism and violence and crime which created many nations in one. It appeared to have moved away from its history rooted in racism, inequality and violence, but it never got to the point where these did not represent a hard core in its character that haunts it to this day.
The journey to the current threat to the US’s standing, not to speak of threats to its internal security and the damage to its vital democratic institutions have very deep roots in the DNA of the country. The tensions between a liberalising America and the resistance against it have always been the major issues behind most of the monumental changes in a nation that preferred to be seen as the model liberal democratic country and global champion of all the best human values. It is sufficient to draw a line on another, more recent turning point at the election of a black president and son of an African student, Barrack Obama. The America that had been custodian of old values with clear ideas about race and its place in the scheme of things was awakened by the cheering of another America, which thought it could sight the ultimate promised land of the founding fathers. Eight years under a black president and the prospect of another presidency, this time under a liberal woman was enough to arouse its indignation and resistance. It did, defeating Hilary Clinton and installing a right-wing President Trump who said and did all the right things to give right-wing and a huge chunk of mainstream America some comfort that history is reversible in America.
Trump’s four years as president was a spectacular success at playing to a very powerful gallery. His successes at managing the economy propped up a cult of the strong man on a journey to restore America’s glory and offer no apologies. Trump went about the business of restoring his version of America amidst deafening cheers from a huge, hardcore of supporters and shocking outrage from others who were deeply offended by his persona, his cultivation of the fringes and debasing of the hallowed office of President of the United States. Then a virus descended on a world and an America that had never been more divided. Trump had the misfortune of having to face an election and sustain a posture in the fight against a pandemic that was ravaging a country with a shocking array of statistics at the same time. He lost the war against the virus and against Joe Biden, as Americans turned out in record numbers to have a say on his leadership and on their fears.
Trump’s legacy will take a long while to fully register . He has awoken powerful sentiments that are unlikely to go back to sleep even after January 20th when Biden will be sworn-in. Long after him, right-wing politicians will feed these sentiments and keep America weaker and dangerously divided. His attempt to de-legitimise vital democratic processes and institutions will fail with some damage to their mystique of infallibility, but they will do serious damage to a US, which has made itself the leading, global standard-setter in the integrity of electoral and democratic processes. His supporters will have powers to draw boundaries on politics, and liberal America will look over its shoulders for a long time to come. The divisions Trump deepened will frighten even the bravest bridge builders, and the world will look at the US with less awe. Trump’s nation will have a second chance to confront COVID-19 with more, better-informed seriousness, but it would have to pay a huge, undeserved price for his follies. In the meantime, the US can only hope that the damage Trump has the powers and the right to do to US interests and the world will be minimal. The world will keep going round, but the US will have to struggle to catch up with it.