Frans Verhagen sees no hope for the United States. The country as we knew it no longer exists. We must face the consequences.
Donald Trump is frightening, but much more worrisome is that a significant portion of American society accepts his debilitating presidency. Despite a daily regime of lies, racism, corruption, undermining of the rule of law, violation of democratic norms and incompetence, there is no word of protest or even slight admonition among the circle of the people to whom he owes his power. Electing a president who turns out to be bad is one thing, but tolerating or even encouraging a president who is wrong by not correcting him and giving him another four years is quite another.
America is no longer what it used to be. The country that led the world and that exemplified democratic values, generous internationalism and economic dynamism is no more. Even people who love the country, as I do myself, have to come to that conclusion.
It is not the coronavirus crisis that leads to these reflections, nor the vulgar, hateful president who has been in the White House since January 2017. It’s not just the Republicans’ fault, either. But both crises, or the intersection of the two, have made it clear that we have reached a point of no return. I don’t know what “the new normal” is going to be, but America has not been normal for a long time.
America has many characteristics of a developing nation, such as having embarrassingly poor quality leaders. We can give a detailed speech about how the country got there. How the richest country in the world is experiencing shocking poverty and inequality, and how it is incapable of meeting the minimal needs of a civilized society. How both sides of the political aisle have wasted their energy on destructive culture wars and identity contests, and how they neglected socioeconomic policy. How the political and economic elite were mainly concerned with themselves, with self-enrichment and shamefully abusing the system. And how 50 years of anti-government activism has stripped the institution that holds a society together of its power.
We know that list, and we can expand it endlessly. So far, we have not drawn any conclusions. But now some questions arise. Has America not only lost its allure but also its mojo? Is the country terminal? If large empires and leading countries have a life cycle, do we now see proof that the United States is past its peak? The spectacle of self-destruction does not just happen over several days. Trump did not cause the decline; he is just a symptom and, with his incompetence, he is also proof.
Even countries on their way down can experience a flare-up of good leadership that gives the illusion that they can arrest the downfall. The election of Barack Obama, who was the most civilized, most balanced and most competent of all presidents since Harry Truman, offered hope. But even Obama couldn’t bring about a miracle. He did what he could and he is confident enough to say that it could have been better, but he ran into the obstacles to which the American political system lends itself. Hope was lost and turned into cynicism.
Maybe America gets the politicians it deserves. The coronavirus crisis showed once again that a significant proportion of Americans are incredibly stupid. You can tell them anything, and there is a horde of malicious people who will use such lies, with President Trump as the worst offender.
It is tempting to think that another president with more decency and more community-centered idealism can save America. I don’t believe that will be the case. Joe Biden won’t do. Maybe his vice president can fulfill that role, maybe someone who knows how to seize the moment and bring the country together again. It is never too late for optimism, although it hardly seems realistic now.
Trump underscored the American decline by giving an interview to his favorite news channel in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The image of America’s worst president seated at the feet of a gigantic image of America’s best president was significant. Lincoln had only one goal as president, and that was to keep the United States together. He was self-effacing in that endeavor, and he used his large intellect to achieve good results. It cost him his life.
How small and petty was that carrot-topped whiner, portraying himself as the most hunted president, but yet also as the most successful American president. How huge was the contrast with the text on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial. The 45th president is unlikely to know those 271 words — a double tweet — from the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s legendary speech: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Those phrases are probably alien to him.
Countries cherish their myths and their heroes. Near the Lincoln Memorial we also find memorials for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt. That Trump placed himself among those giants in an act of historical vandalism, says everything about the contraction the United States is experiencing. Once it was a big country, but that period is over. Lincoln was the first Republican President — hopefully, the man at his feet was the last Republican president.
Let’s not delude ourselves. America as we knew it has been lost. It is high time we accept the consequences and adjust to a world in which we have to do without enlightened leadership. At the moment, America is putting aside everything that tends toward international cooperation. Maybe it’s time to put America aside. Does that sound presumptuous for a world not used to doing things without America? Maybe, but we can’t run away from the harsh reality, or that reality will run away with us.