Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, which brought the end of the Cold War and the downfall of the Soviet Union, the US’s claim to the title of “the world’s sole superpower” and the American pursuit of a liberal, democratic and capitalist globalisation, the US acted as the world leader in which capacity it sorted other countries into retinue, opponents and “exceptions” to contemporary history. At the outset of that period, Washington used a colour palette to dub Eastern European revolutions. They ranged in hues from “velvet” to “orange”. Many years later, when it came time for the Arab “exception”, we had a “Spring” that burst forth blossoms from “jasmine” to “lotus”. Within less than a decade since then, it appeared that the USSR could make a comeback wearing a new Russian mantle and that China could revive the Cold War, albeit in different forms. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring yielded neither fresh breezes nor lasting flowers. But the biggest surprise these days comes from the US. It is as though history has gone full cycle. Rather than how the world is reproducing Western forms it is wondering how the US will endure the upheaval of this year’s spring through the coming summer and fall.
At the moment, there have been four approaches to understanding the US’s condition and its near future. The most common proceeds from the murder of the African American George Floyd by white policemen, triggering angry demonstrations, clashes and rioting, that Trump summed up with his “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” remark. It essentially maintains that there is nothing new about the incident. The murder of black Americans by white police is a frequent occurrence in the US. Despite the differences in location and detail, the result was always anger, demonstrations and occasional violence, as occurred in Los Angeles in 1992. Ultimately, this, too, will take its place in the over 200 years long history of race relations in the US from the era of slavery through the US Civil War and other types of conflict, the 13th, 14th and 15th constitutional amendments, the Civil Rights Act and other such landmarks in the long quest for justice and equality.
Another approach sees it all about Donald Trump. It argues that the US was doing great until along came a president endowed with a cocktail of traits that would drive the country to combustion. “We’ve Now Entered the Final Phase of the Trump Era: The president is stuck in a vicious downward spiral,” reads the title of an opinion piece in The Atlantic on 2 June. If the Trump era opened in a haze of uncertainty during his election campaign in 2016, the first stage of his presidency began with an “axis of adults that imperfectly constrained him”, writes the author, Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, alluding to such individuals as former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, former secretary of defence James Mattis and former national security advisor Herbert McMaster. “We then entered the age of hubris and action during which he systematically rid himself of the adults and was free to follow his whims. The third phase was the reckoning as he began to bump up against the contradictions of his own approach, on China and Iran in particular. Now we have finally arrived at the long-feared crisis and unravelling.”
This final phase is marked by the failure to handle the Covid-19 pandemic effectively, a reeling economy that threatens to leave 20 per cent of the US workforce unemployed, Washington’s exit from the World Health Organisation and an alarming degree of polarisation at home. At the end of this “unravelling” will come a lost electoral bid for a second term because the Democrats now have a sufficient edge in terms of voting record, support and determination to take the states that had given the White House to the Republicans four years ago.
A third approach takes us through a kind of autopsy of a mass phenomenon that brought hundreds of thousands if not millions to the streets in quest of justice and dignity, only for the movement to disintegrate into violence and destruction, and cede way to the soapbox stunts or power grabbing schemes of extremists and fanatics, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Antifa. New York Times reporter Declan Walsh offers one take beneath the headline “In Egypt, Images from American Protests Evoke a Lost Revolution.” On the surface, the article speaks of how events in the US have rekindled the memories and fragile hopes of January 2011 among Egyptians who see a similar dynamic unfolding in the US. However, his real thrust is that the US, with all its democratic institutions, is different. Steven Cook, beneath the title “Yes, Lafayette Square is Tahrir Square” (published in Foreign Policy, 4 June), is more honest. He writes: “A central thread links the unrest across the United States with recent upheavals in the Middle East — the basic demand of the protesters [for justice and dignity].” However, he offers a kind of apology for a period that would impart political lessons on the state of peoples and political systems in our region derived from ignoring the nature and dynamics of the mass phenomenon. It is a phenomenon that appears to have a logic of its own that proceeds from peaceful to violent wherever it plays out, be it in the US or elsewhere. In other words, Cook maintains that the US is not an exception to the universal laws of change.
The fourth approach, even if it may overlap with the preceding ones, takes as its premise that the US, by dint of its constitution and historical traditions, possesses the fortitude to weather the current crisis, especially since arbitration by the people is close at hand in the form of the presidential and congressional elections in November. Proponents of this approach argue that the crisis, in both its health and race dimensions, is far from new. In the 1960s, the US experienced the upheavals of the assassinations of President John F Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X. These events took place, moreover, while the Vietnam War was at its height. The decade produced the Civil Rights Act which was followed by the election of Richard Nixon whose first term was marked by widespread protests, violence and killing of protesters. Even so, Nixon won a second term of office in 1972, although he would not see it to the end due to the Watergate scandal. The American reaction was to elect Jimmy Carter, a liberal, so liberal that US voters ousted him from the White House after a single term, bringing in Ronald Reagan for two terms.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. Despite changing circumstances, polarisation persisted around the same issues: freedom versus law and order, government intervention on behalf of the weak versus laissez faire and rapid economic growth, and whether or not the US should lead the world and to where, how and at what cost.
In that matrix, Trump still has much to offer for those who see in him someone who will champion law and order, boost the economy, stand up to China and Russia and, above all, keep immigrants and refugees out.
A version of this article appears in print in the 11 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly