14 November 2020
I remember as a young school girl in the late 1950s, American history was part of our school curriculum. I was having trouble memorizing the names of the early American presidents, and my father gave me a mnemonic tip: a sentence—"Washington and Jefferson made many a joke”—standing for Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams, Jackson. I can still recite these names in my sleep.
As a post-colonial 22-year-old, I flew to America for graduate school, and over some seven years, imbibed the American spirit—further confirming the received wisdom that our first foreign expatriation would leave an indelible attachment to that host country.
Wearing blinkered glasses, I became more American than the Americans. I would have stayed there but for the objection of my father. Pro-American, but even more pro-Philippine, he was firm that only those who needed opportunities to better their lot emigrated.
After marrying my German husband, the next several decades were spent in Europe and Asia, and my American experiences receded from my memory. I also developed a more nuanced view of America. A true libertarian, I objected to the American free market capitalism--it is not true, I believed, that a rising tide lifts all boats. Moreover, highly skewed income distribution would be a bane to a society’s health. I likewise objected to American militarism— the assumption that the solution to all the world’s problems can be solved through military might.
On the other hand, as the world’s only remaining super-power after the fall of the Soviet Union, I admired American generosity and its efforts towards multilateralism. And although it preached a one-size-fits-all democracy, and had a number of stumbling incidents, American hegemony was generally benign. All-in-all, I was quite content to see a world led by America.
Succeeding events would, however, cause me to ponder--could it be that the America I thought I knew as a student had changed, that the American people were no longer the same? Or perhaps, I had always held a naïve and idealized view of the country. Some of my many fond memories of Americans were their casual acts of generosity and openness: how my professor invited a lonely foreign student for Christmas in the small apartment he shared with his wife; how when passing a toll gate, someone ahead of us had paid our fee to wish us Happy New Year; how a guard let my husky husband and me jump a long queue, simply trusting that we were telling the truth when we said my husband’s knee had given way.
However, doubts about the effects of stark capitalism in American society re-surfaced in my mind during and after the Great American Recession of 2007 when the world suffered because of the greed of America’s elite—the bankers, their rating agencies, and leaders of big corporations. Worse, a few years later, these same elites simply picked up where they had left off even as many others remained trapped in the mess they had created. By 2012, The New York Times reported that in the intervening years, the richest one percent in America had grown even richer, whilst the poorest 50% had become even poorer.
Then came more news of mass killings of innocent bystanders, including school children, because of the unchecked American fascination with assault weapons. “Guns don’t kill people,” says the National Rifle Association (NRA). “It is people who kill people.” It seemed to me, violence in American society had reached critical proportions even as their impotent government simply repeated the same mantra of shock and condolences. I thought back to my American history classes and concluded that America had always been a violent nation.
This feeling of disillusionment was capped by the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the American presidency. After then, I became convinced that America was in decline. I felt sad: so much promise, so much resources, so much goodwill—the vitality and the great inspiration of the American dream.
The cult of Trumpism is as much a symptom as a cause of the breakdown of American cultural institutions, in particular, the loss of America’s moral compass. Pundits claim that when we feel threatened, confused, or helpless in the face of the unknown, we want to be led so we wouldn’t have the responsibility to choose for ourselves.
The more than 40% of America's voting population—as of last count, more than 70 million Americans--who admire and follow Trump have found a charismatic leader who will solve their problems for them—who will fight a system that is rigged against them. This is particularly true of those who have been left behind by the revolutions of knowledge and technology, of globalization, and of the changing demographics of America. It is said that by the next generation, white Americans will have become a minority, to be replaced by the combined ethnic groups of color. Facing this existential threat, Trumpism gives its followers permission to free themselves from conventional demands, or even to flout norms in their act of rebellion and for some, self-preservation. Trump will be their guide, their mentor, and their guru. Meanwhile, the rest of Trump’s party are too terrified to go against the will of 70 million Americans even as Trump himself would disappoint his followers if he gave up the fight too easily.
Was it perhaps misdirected that an exit poll taken during election night recorded most voters saying they were focused on policies, whilst only a small minority (25%) said they were focused on personalities? To me, the issue was not one of personality but rather one of moral character. I had wondered how millions of Americans could have disregarded Trump’s blatant falsehoods, sympathies toward extremists, misogyny, corruption, abuse of power, and other grave transgressions, concluding they were simply personality traits? There are universal principles of basic right and wrong, and one’s belief in these principles will in many instances determine one's stand on major issues. Mask-wearing, for example, is a manifestation of character, i.e., a fundamental respect for the rights of others. Trump has led and will continue to lead his followers to moral bankruptcy.
Biden is now left with the gargantuan task of binding America’s wounds. Foremost is the imperative to look after those who have been left behind—to give them a sense of security and renewed trust in the establishment. What if Biden goes on a cross-country tour to signal to Trump’s followers that the establishment is indeed listening to their voices?
Unfortunately, the coming legislative and judicial structures will be stacked against him, leaving him very little room to maneuver. Perhaps, as some commentators have suggested, it is time to look at reforming the electoral college. Likewise, it is time to cultivate heretofore fledgling third parties in order to encourage coalitions and collaboration instead of the current polarization between the two parties.
America on the brink could address its weaknesses whilst capitalizing on its strengths, one of which is an enhanced awareness that each citizen can and must play a role because they matter. This awareness is evidenced by the fact that over 65% of the voting population—the highest turnout ever--cast their momentous votes in spite of the pandemic. Another is the strength of its institutions that ensured the election was fair and honest, inspite of what the Trumpists might say.
Does this mean that the majority of Americans could, if given the opportunity, care for their country more than their their party or their wallets? From health care to racial relations to its need to promote critical thinking in their secondary public schools, I think America will rise or fall depending on what it does during the coming years.
Finally, I ask myself why I should be so concerned with what happens to America. What impact will this election have on my personal life? Aside from my romantic bond with the country, I worry about a vacuum of moral leadership in the world.
Let me conclude this little essay by quoting the English poet John Donne, ". . . Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."*
Footnote: *John Donne. FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (1624). Everyman's Library, 2019.
"Many many of my fellow Americans feel as disturbed, disgusted, concerned, and baffled by the trump fiasco as you allude to. Unfortunately, this extreme right wing nationalistic mindset is growing across the globe. Rest assured, there are still millions of Americans out there that live up to the memories you have. Had trump won again, I would have almost lost hope..." Jeff Gould
"Hi Vicki. Thanks for these observations. Many of us have experienced this changing relationship with the US during our lifetime. For us, as we grew up in Holland they were our liberators. I agree that Trump is a symptom of the decay of democracy in the US that has been going on for decades. His departure will not solve anything and as you stated, the measures needed to arrest the decay, will run into determined Republican roadblocks." Gerry van der Linden