The Z Factor: The Fragile States of America

The life of tinpot fragile states has come to America. Rioters are pillaging the towns, the military is on standby, and the President is hiding in an underground bunker. Images from Washington DC this past week might have come straight out of a Hollywood apocalypse movie. One aerial shot showed the Washington Monument rising up from amidst fire and smoke.

If this were Africa or Arabia, the United Nations Security Council would be thinking of a peacekeeping mission. The protesters don’t seem to have any faith left in State institutions and rule of law is non-existent. Meanwhile, the President has embraced his despotic impulses much more fully these past few days. He wants his military to commit war crimes on the streets: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he infamously said, picking a police chief’s line from 1967, during the Civil Rights movement (somewhere, Gaddafi is rolling in his grave). Things got so bad that even Twitter – the platform for the world’s bigots and xenophobes – had to append public advisories to a couple of his tweets.

Since this is an election year, there is both good and bad news for America. The good news is that this is not, in fact, Africa or Arabia; democracy is resilient, and institutions still stand. Many governors and mayors have spoken up against racism and long-running police brutality. In some cities like Miami and Newark, the police apologised to the protesters. In Flint, Michigan, a sheriff reached out to protesters and marched with them.

In many ways, Trump’s unhinged experiment seems to have come to a head: He upturned long-respected traditions of presidential dignity and maturity by calling them “politically correct”. His uncouth and racist rhetoric polarised the masses and made peace difficult to keep. But voters can now make a change in the White House and proclaim that political indecency is no longer acceptable. In the long term, they can use the momentum of that victory to push police reforms at the grassroots – in the states and the counties.

But alas, there is also bad news. The protests have brought fire and brimstone to the streets – and it’s hard to say how many people consider that to be worse than racist politics. Trump will turn the rioting into a national security issue. He will point out that the progressives are murderous anarchists and insinuate that the whole country will burn if they win. He will also continue to try to impress his voters with machismo by invoking the military and various obscure presidential powers.

If Trump succeeds in his strongman response to the protests, he may win the election, courtesy of votes from those who value order above all else. But he will continue to reign over a deeply divided country. The experience of these protests will destroy whatever little trust there still is between conservatives and progressives in the United States. And Trump 2.0 will only be far angrier and more unhinged than Trump 1.0, as the President tries to exploit that divide.

On the world stage, there will be little American leadership left. Between its botched handling of COVID-19 and these ongoing protests, America’s credibility as an advanced democracy lies in tatters. And so do the rights of millions elsewhere: Hong Kong, for instance, is gasping for breath under Chinese despotism, with little useful support from anywhere.

A lot of this might sound familiar to Indians. Indeed, rarely in history have the political trajectories of India and the United States converged so remarkably – from poisonous hate rhetoric and police brutality, to a divided society and damaged global credibility. For both our sakes, let’s hope that democracy fights back.

(c) 2020, Deccan Herald