Quo Vadis America? The United States and its contradictions

This is the fourth and last article of the series regarding great powers. It deals with the United States’ strategic dilemma in the era of its relative decline. On the one hand, it withdraws into itself to focus on necessary reforms, though resisted by an antidemocratic party. On the other hand, it has to tackle challenges in foreign policy that it would prefer to ignore but it cannot. The result seems to be the following: the country moves one step forward and two steps back.

In geopolitical matters humor is not out of place. As an example, I will cite the great Argentine illustrator, cartoonist, screenwriter (he worked with Walt Disney), painter and ceramist Lino Palacio (1903-1984). He could have been my grandfather and I could have inherited his graphic ability and his intellectual spark. However, at least we had in common an exemplar public education (in the same Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires), an interest in the relation between countries, a curiosity for the risks and ravages of war, as well as humor. From my childhood, I remember some of his characters and comic reflections (for example, in one of his pieces the character of Ramona asks, “Why is it that all national heroes have street names?”). Especially, I remember his magnificent history of WWII—two volumes of cartoons—signed with his nom de plume Flax. There, Lino Palacio summarized with his drawings and brief texts the action and words of world leaders such as Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin, Tojo, De Gaulle, Chamberlain, Franco and others. I would risk to affirm that, in fateful times, countries and their characters tend to transform themselves into cartoon material, maybe even more so than in other epochs[1].

Nowadays, we also face huge challenges. The most recent one, though neither the first nor the last, is the pandemic. The pandemic has drawn a portrait of our societies that is not encouraging at all. More than a collection of x-rays, it seems a cartoon series. Many of our contemporary leaders fall short of old time’s statespersons and, thus do not need a cartoonist to draw them with an ironic pen. They are spontaneous cartoons, and in some cases, grotesque caricatures of themselves.

The United States are not an exception in this story. Until Trump’s presidency and the pandemic, the country was dressed in fine ideological robes: thriving in its economy, liberal in social life, tolerant in customs, calm within its frontiers while hardened outside their borders, welcoming immigrants and refugees, and willing to overcome a negative racial past. Their political model, without being a true participative democracy, accepted as a norm the alternation in office, the division of powers, and the possibility of correcting the course when some public polices appeared as mistaken. With Trump’s followers and the pandemic, many of those robes fell down and others appear frayed. The greater the decline the greater the denial: the United States are unable to resign themselves to be seen as a country among others and not necessarily the best.

The legacy of Trump’s administration is hard to reverse. He put republican democracy in danger and left a divided country, with a broken bipartisanship, as the two blocks are not capable of common action. Despite this impasse, the presidential triumph of Joe Biden and his first measures and initiatives from the executive power augur a new period of great reforms that some compare with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1930s.

Such analogy maybe is not the best to capture this moment in American history. The country is divided in two and one of its large parties has stopped being democratic and has tied its destiny to the fate of a great loser, by “great” I mean the power quota that he retains and that is far from having disappeared. Winston Churchill said that the difference between war and politics is that during war one dies only once. In politics, resurrection is quite common. Nothing makes us think that in a future election, Trump’s party, with or without him as leader, will not succeed and return to power. It would be the end of American democracy, as we have known and the beginning of a confusing authoritarian model, nationalist, racist, and bellicose.

In my opinion, the Biden administration is an interregnum. With a negligible majority in both Houses, the executive power has embarked in an ambitious reform program, quite necessary to place the country up to the task of an international , led today by China. The rest of the world judges these reforms with the same hope but also with the same skepticism as the author of this article. We know that any stumble or unexpected event is capable of bringing down the best-designed program. Recently, the explosion of a religious and inter-ethnic war between Israel and Palestine is an illustrative case. When a period of relative stability was taken for granted—in part due to Kushner’s plan of ending the illusory solution of “two states” and focus on a reconciliation between Israel and various Arab countries—violence between Jews and Palestinians in the occupied territories erupted, and also within Israel, in mixed communities, which up to now had lived in relative peace. This new (and for the USA “surprising”) wave of violence brought down a plan of various Israeli parties (from right to left, Arabs and Jews) test national unity government in parliament (Knesset). Such program was literally torpedoed by both sides. On the one hand, Hamas organization pretends to be the sole (and violent) representative of the Palestinians and, on the other side, Prime Minister Netanyahu who wants to hold onto power under the pretext of a bellicose emergency, to avoid in the most cynical way falling from its executive post and be at the mercy of the judiciary for corruption. Today a fragile coalition has managed to succeed him, but for how long? Violence placed the US government in an awkward position between the commitment to support the State of Israel, on the one side, and criticizing the disproportion of Israel’s military reaction in Gaza, on the other side.

Other similar events in different parts of the world will place the US in an awkward position and similar dilemmas. The geopolitical dynamic of a superpower in retreat will have a negative impact on the internal reform plans and the internal situation may very well give rise to the return of the reactionaries and revanchists to power. At this point, it is worth reflecting about the peculiarity of the American

In almost all countries with a constitution that is more or less democratic (elections, alternation in power, difference in public policies but with basic consensus on the accumulation process), the last few decades have witnessed a great crisis of representation. It included the fall or disappearance of traditional parties, the fragmentation of the political panorama into a multiplicity of sectarian parties, the emergence of occasional coalitions, the emergence of, at the same time massive and fleeting social movements, and the rise to power of unusual and/or demagogic figures. Only solid and established dictatorships (in particular Russia and China) have withstood the onslaught of this crisis. Today, almost every other ship of state sails in stormy seas. Frequently, we talk about a “gap” when referring to a minimum understanding and consensus among various political rivals. I would use the plural in this case, and talk about various “gaps.” In this sense, the United States are an exception, with this caveat: the exception is for the worse and not for the better. I explain myself.

The two large traditional parties of American democracy have not disappeared despite facing a general representation crisis, though today they reveal a different and dangerous asymmetry. Until 2016 (date when Trump rose to the presidency), both large parties—Democrat and Republican—alternated in power without changing the basic consensus and the power equilibrium designed in the Constitution. Since the Trump administration, one of these parties—the Republican or GOP (Grand Old Party)—largely changed. It ceased to be a party with a structured ideology and a plan of government. It became a personalist and authoritarian party, with more prejudices than ideology and with an ad hoc foreign policy, with arbitrary transactions, without a global strategy and under a nationalist and isolationist motto

Having lost the 2020 elections by 7 million votes, the GOP, transformed into Trump’s party (and with a significant share of the votes), refused to accept the results and the outgoing president prompted an insurrection by some of his followers that practically was an attempt of a self coup d’état by the president (in the last part of his administration). It was a maneuver without precedent in American history, though with quite a few precedents in other parts of the world. To illustrate this situation, it is worth going back through the course of European history and remember the (at that time successful) self coup d’état led by Luis Bonaparte, who after being elected president decided to abolish the republic and proclaimed himself an emperor (under the title of Napoleon III). This adventurer, turned monarch, had two things going in his favor (1) the fragmentation of the existing political parties and (2) an insurrection by his accomplices that foreshadowed the organization of “strike forces” in the later fascist parties of the XX century (Fasci di combatimento in Italy, Sturm Abteilungen in Germany).[2]

An insurrectionist group similar to (though clumsier than) the old historic ones invaded the American Congress to annul the certification, given by such legislative body, to the presidential election. The attempted coup did not prosper, but left in place a new and dangerous Republican Party (republican only by name), which is resolved to “win” the next elections (the 2022 legislative elections and the 2024 presidential election) at any cost—with tricks and obstacles—or, in the event of losing, proclaim as “fraudulent” any adverse result. This party has abandoned the democratic and republican game and has explicitly placed itself outside the Constitution[3].

Therefore, United States face a more serious crisis than the one other democratic republics must suffer, where coalitions are made and undone from time to time,  to face instead an organized attempt to destroy democracy, either from within or from without. In this sense Biden’s presidency, which many equate with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s, in my opinion, is more similar to that of Abraham Lincoln where the recalcitrant Southern states declared themselves in secession. The geopolitical consequences will be much more dangerous now than at that time. Once again, national unity has been broken.

[1] . Another example during the shaken XIX century in France is the brilliant political cartoon series of Honore Daumier.

[2] The best analysis of this situation is none other than the one done by Karl Marx in “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, written in1852.

[3] . Just a few conservative but dignified republican politicians have refused to surrender themselves to the authoritarian and coup-supporter movement within the party https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/05/05/liz-cheney-republican-party-turning-point/

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