Today’s America has degenerated into a rowdy cafeteria of unhealthy options. Prime on the menu is a trinity of unpalatable offerings. There is a wild version of the Covid-19 pandemic. There is looming economic disaster as a consequence of the pandemic. And there is now a nasty civil unrest that has not quite gone away.
A televised police gang lynching of a hapless African American man on the streets of Minneapolis has rekindled the tinder of systemic racial tension in the country. Protests have flared in many cities all over the country and major world capitals. Police barricades have multiplied all over the place as public peace and social order have come under severe stress.
Some protesters have gone violent just as thugs and miscreants have taken advantage of the mayhem to loot shops and torch public and private property. Many states have called in National Guard contingents for heightened crowd control. Remarkably, the protesters have thronged the perimeters of the White House, forcing the Secret Service to erect a new taller fence overnight. On one occasion, Mr. Trump had to be shepherded into a bunker at the menacing approach of ‘the people’. He later claimed he went to inspect the bunker!
Quite significantly, America’s latest civil unrest is raging on the trail of China’s clampdown on Hong Kong with a security legislation that has literally ended the Island’s semi autonomous status. Predictably, official China and party media have reacted to the crisis in the United States by cynically urging America to respect the ‘human rights’ of its protesting African American citizens while condemning rampant instances of police brutality and racial discrimination in America.
The racism inspired protests have spiraled to major centres of the world. From Ottawa to London, Amsterdam to Damascus and Paris, huge crowds have marched in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. These crowds have defied the requirement of social distancing and other protocols around the Covid-19 emergency to march in support of something more important to our common humanity, namely, justice for ordinary people irrespective of skin colour. The content and insinuations on the placards on display at all these protests should worry Mr. Trump and his White House establishment.
All this is coming against a backdrop of the embarrassing decimation of over 105,000 Americans by the Covid-19 pandemic. That America now accounts for one third of the global deaths from Covid-19 is not a glowing tribute to the leadership of the United States. For the world’s richest nation with presumably the best science and technology standing, a death toll higher than that in any of the great wars it has fought in all its history should be worrisome. Responsibility for this disaster falls squarely at the doorstep of Mr. Trump, easily the most incompetent and shambolic president in recent American history.
Predictably, President Trump has assumed vicarious ownership of the current crisis by choosing grand standing and drama over statesmanship. Instead of words to assuage the injured soul of his nation, the president has threatened protesters with ‘vicious dogs’ and ‘ominous weapons’. He has also threatened to call in the military to beat down the protests, accusing governors of weakness in the face of widespread lawlessness.
The possibility that America is standing at the brink of a nasty civil unrest and possible racial confrontation could be real. Happily, however, the racial configuration of the protesters all over the world is a rainbow assembly of concerned people. Yet the crisis could morph into other confrontations because the Covid-19 emergency has multiplied the frontiers of dissent and fertilized the soil for multiple flare -ups in the United States. An unprecedented 42 million plus Americans have lost their jobs in the wake of the Covid-19 dislocations. The pandemic has also amplified other vulnerabilities and exposed latent fault lines in the American society. Ugly ghosts from a past of racial injustice against blacks have returned to haunt the streets.
Quite significantly, the coronavirus has claimed its highest casualties among African Americans and Hispanics, a segment that coincides with the highest incidence of poverty and other deprivations in the American society. As the protests and mayhem rage, it is becoming difficult to separate the anger over the racist police murder of one black man from the litany of other socio economic grievances that plague the American society, now magnified by the economic consequences of Covid-19.
In all of it, the challenge that has emerged for the United States goes far beyond ensuring judicial retribution for the latest victim of America’s systemic racism and manicured injustice. Of course the errant police men in Minneapolis will be arrested, put on trial and may probably be jailed. But it will only take another police shooting of another innocent black man to re-ignite another round of protests and fiery speeches. What is urgently needed is political will and statesmanlike courage to confront this perennial blight in American history and society. Sadly, the current political leadership of the United States happens to be the least equipped or disposed to initiate any such serious reforms.
For individual state governors, the current crisis has added anger management to the curriculum of the administration of states whose economies have been hobbled by the Covid-19 crisis. The question now is: how do you navigate the treacherous divide between police establishments that feel they have a duty to do their job the old draconian way and publics whose civil rights have been injured by the injustices of systemic racism?
The ultimate burden, however, remains that of national leadership and statesmanship at a very difficult moment in American and world history. How do you maintain law and order among a populace where over 42 million people have lost their jobs and livelihood? For each job lost another three Americans on the average have their livelihood severely threatened.
For Mr. Trump and his ruling Republican party, therefore, the larger question is how to salvage whatever remains of America’s internal cohesion and international credibility. The minimum requirement of the moment is a certain inclusive statesmanship and rhetorical candour that could reunite a badly divided nation and reassure a world that is becoming increasingly nervous about America’s prospects.
In every direction, we come face to face with the looming ominousness of Donald Trump’s troubled personality and beleaguered presidency. Even in the face of a palpable national tragedy, Mr. Trump has refused to appeal for calm in a neutral adult fashion. He has instead threatened state violence against the protesters who have however defied his bluster to besiege the perimeters of the White House. He has even defied the crowds to teargas his way across the street to the historic St. Johns Episcopal Church for a foolish photo opportunity.
Ironically, the man defined the character of what is fast taking shape as the landscape of his legacy America. This is a landscape of utter disharmony, division and devastation of everything positive that American once stood for. Before our very eyes, a proud nation and global civilization has been reduced to a nasty carnage by the serial bumbling of an autocrat in the White House.
Ironically, Mr. Trump had undertaken to end the carnage face of America right from his inauguration on Friday 20th January, 2017. He highlighted his inauguration with an unusual stitched up address. Scanty in substance but pointlessly irreverent, his inaugural was replete with unconnected dramatic outbursts. Trump painted a ghastly picture of America that literally rubbished the work of all his immediate predecessors. Hardly did his audience know then that he was previewing what was going to be his own legacy. ‘Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation …This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
The current civil unrest on the streets of almost 350 American towns and cities demands more than cosmetic reforms of police protocols and the criminal justice system. America’s prevailing social order and concept of rights and justice have since expired. Token acts of affirmative action and legislative white wash can no longer serve to mask the hypocrisy of systemic racism and and socio economic inequality. Mr. George Floyds dying cry of ‘I can’t breathe’ in many ways captures the collective socio- economic asphyxiation of persons of colour, especially blacks, in today’s America. The existing system can no longer convince generations whose forebears have borne the burden of racism for so long that America holds a promise of fairness and justice for them.
The lopsided cultural hegemony that enabled America to sustain and market this hypocrisy to the world for centuries has unraveled. Technology has brought the reality of racism and inequality into every living room and into every hand that holds a cell phone in the world. Underlying the neon lights of Las Vegas and the blinding klieg lights and flash photography of Hollywood is a backdrop of the carnage of poverty and squalor. Often hidden are the ugly inner cities and the bloody desperation of fierce urban gangs.
The urgent challenge of radical and rapid social reform in the United States is ultimately one of political economy. At the level of politics, the crisis of systemic injustice is ingrained in American history and politics. Democracy as a template for justice and fairness is on trial. While a tradition of protest advertises freedom and liberty, the frequency of injustice and police violence and disproportionateof force speaks to a tradition of unrelenting abuse.
Identity politics in America has always come with tension and protest. The Minneapolis police murder has however come at a time of great political difficulty for America. There is no Lyndon B Johnson in the horizon. Instead, the country is struggling under the burden of easily the most problematic presidency in American history. The presidency as a symbol of national unity and a commitment to justice has been dead in the last three and half years. Long standing systemic racism and inequality have been licensed onto the surface. Extremists and white supremacists no longer need to hide their faces or nuance their hateful rhetoric. In Trump’s badly divided America, the gains of the Civil Rights movement and the heartening symbolism of the Obama presidency have been eroded.
At the economic level, there is a bigger crisis, a systemic one. Capitalism is under yet another crisis and trial so soon after the 2008 crisis. The Covid-19 crisis has exposed its failure to manage a crisis in an area that touches on the basic survival of the people: healthcare. The system has failed its managers and failed the people. It did not protect the lives and livelihood of the American people at an hour of grave need. Over 105,000 dead and more than 42 million thrown into the wilderness of joblessness in less than three months!
In a sense, the George Floyd powered civil unrest completes the trinity of factors that could herald the real decline of America’s integrity, power and influence. Looming economic crash, the Covid-19 pandemic and civil unrest is a lethal combination even for the strongest of systems. In past crises, America’s proverbial exceptionalism has enabled the country to bounce back even stronger. But the national and international environments were different. Today, there is a conspiracy of factors that make things a little more difficult for the United States.
First is the combination of the rise of an ambitious and powerful rival for global pre-eminence, China, abroad and the disruptive braggadocio of the feckless political leadership of Mr. Trump at home. It is even worse. The combination of a rich and ambitious China with a fierce and wily Russia is a geo strategic nightmare that the United States cannot afford to ignore. Mr. Trump has worsened America’s international burden. The European Union with an alienated Germany, an injured France and without the United Kingdom is a strategic misfortune for a United States that has always been bolstered by the support of trans Atlantic allies.
Weakened and disunited at home and alienated and deserted abroad, America’s survival kit may have been mortally depleted. Trump’s America has exited the Paris Climate Accord, the World Health Organisation, the World Trade Organisation; it has shredded the Iran nuclear treaty and destabilized the Middle East. He has rubbished most multilateral trade agreements that sustained a thriving international system. His conscious erosion of the post World War II world order on which the stability of the world rested for over 70 years has inaugurated a fever of nationalism and growing isolationism in which America’s own global leadership is no longer tenable or even attractive.
America’s long reputation as a citadel of democracy and a land of opportunity has in the last three and half years virtually evaporated. A combination of hostile immigration and trade policies and the pursuit of exclusionary nationalism have frightened off many of America’s friends and admirers around the world. The economic consequences of a global pandemic and now the reality of widespread civil unrest and insecurity now make the United States a very unattractive destination for all those who seek peace, rest, security or opportunity.
For us in Nigeria, the current civil unrest in America has many teachable dimensions. In the heat of the protests, president Trump called on state governors to be more stout in their response. He not only called for contingents of the National Guard to be mobilized, he has threatened to deploy active –duty military. This threat met with instant stiff rejection and rebuff by sundry government officials and senior former political appointees. His own Defense Secretary, Mr. Mike Esper, went on global television to disown Mr. Trump and reject the possibility of invoking the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty soldiers to quell the civil unrest on American cities. Said Mr. Esper: ‘I do not support the use of active-duty soldiers to quell protests…”
This is most instructive for Nigeria’s current internal security posture. The Buhari administration and indeed the ones before him have all taken an easy recourse to the military option whenever internal security challenges have escalated. The silly argument has been that when criminals and bandits outgun the police, the natural recourse is to call in the military who are however not trained for internal security challenges. In the US case, the argument is that the military is trained and equipped to defend the nation against external enemies, not to chase tax payers and citizens around the streets. It is even the height of lazy governance for politicians in a democracy to invite soldiers into civil security duties. The result has been a corrupting of soldiers and a weakening of civil authority with a depletion of the military’s professionalism.
The primacy of the rule of law in matters of civil liberty has suffered in our land. The constitutional right of citizens to freely assemble and protest has been constrained by the sustenance of colonial police laws. Even the mere expression of an intention to peacefully protest against unpopular government policies has often been beaten down and would be organisers arrested, clamped into detention or put on trial on spurious charges.
Like the United States, Nigeria is a diverse polity. The navigation of identity politics and diversity are real challenges here as well. Even more frightening, a subterranean nation is in the making. This is the land of the over 100 million certified poor Nigerians. Let us make no mistake about it. The challenge of managing our diversity and desperate inequality will place a great burden in the way of politics and governance in the years ahead.
From a distance, America’s current travails look like the throes of an empire struggling with the difficult logic of decline.