By Mohamed Harees –
“Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” – President George W. Bush ( September 2001)
On Wednesday 6 January, 2021, America’s chickens came home to roost. The violent drama which unfolded in Capitol Hill was utterly shameful. It buried six foot under, even the atom of credibility left of the oft boasted ideals of US democracy, at the end of the vicious Trump era in office. Television cameras broadcast images of protesters dancing and waving flags on the steps of the Capitol. Photos and snippets popped up on social media of rioters inside the building, attempting to break into the legislative chambers and posing in the offices of elected legislators; of security officers, guns drawn in the House of Representatives, behind barricaded doors.
That Wednesday’s breach was made by the enemies within by a mob of insurrectionists riled up by Trump, who has for months vowed to “fight like hell” to stay in power after claiming that the US election was “rigged” [it wasn’t]. Over the past four years, he systematically nurtured and weaponised white grievance and racism against the ‘Other’, His enemies, called the press “the enemy of the people” (a phrase favoured by autocrats and dictators).
In fact, Trump administration Cabinet officials are reportedly discussing the 25th amendment to the US constitution, which outlines how the vice-president and a majority of the Cabinet can temporarily remove a president from office. Whether Pence and the Cabinet act or not, Trump’s presidency will be over in just weeks. At that point, Republican Party leaders will have to grapple with a future where it has lost control of the Congress and the White House and has a former president whose reputation is badly tarnished but who still has strong sway over a sizeable segment of the party’s base.
Assessing the shameful legacy of Trump’s presidency, will be a gigantic task to say the least. The –so-called world superpower under Trump clearly became less free, less equal, more divided, more alone, deeper in debt, swampier, dirtier, meaner, sicker, and deader as well as more delusional. The level of American political language was everywhere dragged down, leaving a gaping shame deficit. Trump’s most enduring legacy may be his use of the trappings of the presidency to erode Americans’ views of the institutions of their own government. Analysts thus see an America being casting off from its deepest moorings, with its’ global credibility lost and the self-image of American exceptionalism being just erased off the canvas. As Guardian UK said, ‘Trump’s personal brand of viciousness appealed to every worst human instinct, justified every vile prejudice, excused every mean and unkind thought. His is a blind ignorance that resonates with those who will not or cannot see. Falsehood is always easier than truth. For these reasons, Trump’s global legacy is Trumpism. It will live on – toxic, immoral, ubiquitous and ever-threatening.’
It is an irony that he is ending his one-term Presidency as the most despised POTUS in known history, having started his tenure of office trying to make the Muslims ‘persona non grata’ in America. Trump, governing by whim and tweet, promoted Islamophobia, deepened the nation’s racial and cultural divides and undermined faith in its institutions. His legacy: a tumultuous four years that were marked by his impeachment, failures during the worst pandemic in a century and his refusal to accept defeat. The administration’s disastrous mishandling of the pandemic has been well documented, and there’s no need to rehearse that depressing story once more. Trump also brought impunity to the highest office in the land, wielding a wrecking ball to the most precious windowpane Americans cherish- the democracy. While historians agree that Trump was a singular figure in the office, it will be decades before the consequences of his tenure are fully known. But some pieces of his legacy already are in place.
Even if his administration ends on January 20, 2021, Trump will have created a destructive legacy in foreign and domestic policy the depth of which is unrivalled in modern American history. The trauma of his administration’s assault on postwar order will resonate for decades to come. The destructive effect of his 25,000 or more false or misleading statements, super-spread by social media and cable news, contaminated the minds of tens of millions of people who finally voted for him. Trump was successful in burying ‘a stab-in-the-back’ narrative in the minds of those millions of Americans, poisoning the atmosphere like radioactive dust, consuming whatever is left of their trust in democratic institutions and values.
Why should the world trust Trump’s America? Surveys bear out that the world no longer does: In a January 2020 poll, Pew Research finds that across 32 countries, 64% of citizens polled don’t have confidence in the U.S. President to “do the right thing” in world affairs – Western European allies are particularly sceptical of this President. It is breath taking just how quickly Trump’s recklessness has eroded the US position in the world. US failure however goes far beyond Trump’s toxic political style: American supremacy in the world since the Second World War has been rooted in its unique capacity to get things done internationally by persuasion or by the threat or use of force. As experts pointed out, international order depends not only on the balance of hard power – the only power the President seems to understand – but also on perceptions of legitimacy. As Robert Blackwill, former U.S. diplomat and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations notes, “rhetoric (..) matters – it affects U.S. credibility among alliance members; it affects the allied sense of U.S. steadfastness; and it affects the strength and credibility of deterrence.”
From pulling out of treaties to denigrating allies to starting trade wars, from creating havoc in the Middle East and helping the Zionist and other Arb oppressors in the region, the impulsive actions of Trump have been upending the international order that has been in place since the end of World War II. But even before Trump’s belligerent foreign policy positions, America had been gradually losing its dominant role in world affairs.
Prophecies that the US is in a state of decline have been made almost as long as the US emerged from the Second World War as the greatest superpower. Yet the much-heralded downfall of the American empire has kept being postponed or has seen others decline even faster, notably the Soviet Union. Critics of “US decline-ism” explain that, while the US may no longer dominate the world economy to the degree it once did, it still has 800 bases around the world and a military budget of $748bn. Yet the inability of the US military to use its technical prowess to win wars in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq has shown how little it has got in return for its vast expenditure.
As sociologist Richard Lachmann argues, the self-destructive greed of elites means that the US is now stuck with wars it cannot win and a declining economic base. Put simply, the US is no longer a country that the rest of the world wants to emulate or, if they do, the emulators tend to be authoritarian nativist demagogues or despots. Their admiration is warmly welcomed: witness Trump’s embrace of the Hindu nationalist Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and his cultivation of the younger generation of tyrants such as Kim Jung-un in North Korea and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia.
In his 1989 farewell address, US president Ronald Reagan returned to a familiar theme throughout his political life: that of America as a shining city on a hill. “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still,” he said. This, for the longest time, has been the story America has told itself. Of its inherent goodness. Of its righteousness. Of its morality. But the US Capitol being breached on 6th January show that it isn’t, and perhaps never was. That shining hill was nothing more than a mirage. America’s mask is now off.
Democrats, laying the riots at the feet of Trump said, “January 6 will go down as one of the darkest days in American history”. President-elect Joe Biden, making a speech from Delaware said: “… let me be very clear: The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect the true America, do not represent who we are… I’m genuinely shocked and saddened that our nation, so long a beacon of hope and light for democracy, has come to such a dark moment.” He added. “America’s about honour, decency, respect, tolerance. That’s who we are. That’s who we’ve always been.” .
Nevertheless, even a cursory look at history proves that the President-elect is mistaken. After all, the edifice that is America was built on the bones of Native-Americans and blood and sweat of Black people. Ask the Japanese, who, some argue were on the brink of surrender during the conflict, bore the brunt of not just one, but both Atomic bombs ever used in the history of war (by the United States, of course) on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.Over 200,000 died and thousands more followed in the years to come due to radiation sickness. Ask the people of Korea, on whom a mind-numbing amount of Napalm was used during the Korean War (1950 to 1953). Ask the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan, where US troop levels are set to be reduced to 2,500 each by mid-January. Despite its long brutal history of violence and its record of interventionism, America, much like an out-of-touch wrestling promoter, likes to simplistically portray itself as “the good guy” taking on “the bad guys.”
Pax Americana also is winding down. The United States can manage this relative decline effectively over the next couple of decades only if it first acknowledges the fundamental reality of decline. The problem is that many Americans, particularly among the elites, have embraced the notion of American exceptionalism with such fervour that they can’t discern the world transformation occurring before their eyes. US has forgotten the emerging reality of the weakness of the powerful and the power of the weak. The rest of the world have started to reject the assumption that the U.S. is “indispensable” and “exceptional” , but the US leaders have continued to argue that only the U.S. could lead the international system. The oft-forecast end of the American century may thus be closer than Washington thinks.
In the future, Americans will no longer be able to afford to live as they have lived in the past. Joe Biden has given a message for the world: “America is back.” The president-elect promised that the US will rebuild the international links that were damaged under the chaotic Trump presidency. The reality is that the rest of the world doesn’t need America to “be back”. While Biden may be less personally objectionable than Trump, his background and political inclinations mean that he is likely to favour the same grim project of covert operations, failed coups and arms build-ups as previous Presidents. The reality of American power is that it exists to serve a coterie of the rich and powerful, oppressors and regional bullies. Responding to the terrifying, truly international threats of the 21st century, from global warming to transnational political violence, requires not more drones, bunker busters and failed CIA interventions, but political negotiation, respect for international law and order as well as economic redistribution and adhering to social justice.
The damage this reckless narcissist of a President has accomplished is impossible to estimate. It is anyone’s guess if his departure from public office will ever repair the damage, not only to the nation but to the planet. However, although Trump’s presidency was unprecedented in its incivility and mendacity, it is also connected to deeper trends in American politics and society. The “with us or against us” narrative Bush promoted had an instantly chilling effect in that it almost immediately silenced critics of war. Critical thought, dissent and courage were overwhelmingly replaced with fear, conformity, cowardice and an inability to hold power accountable (save for a few exceptions) while it also galvanized extremists on all sides. In this context, nothing will correct the status quo or change it unless or until an overwhelming majority of Americans recognize and embrace reality that the world outside has changed and choose to impress this upon their political leaders living in cocoons.
To express more optimism than the situation warrants, there could be one silver lining. The world and UN may emerge wiser after the exit of Trump with little more wisdom about the need to collectively stand up to the global veto wielding bullies against their hypocrisy, excesses and arrogance.