The Year that America Unraveled

It scarcely seems possible that it was a mere thirty years ago, as the Berlin Wall came crashing down, the Soviet Union crumbled, and what Winston Churchill had famously called the ‘Iron Curtain’ was lifted from eastern Europe, that commentators in the West were jubilantly pronouncing (to use Francis Fukuyama’s phrase) “the end of history”.  The supposition was that the entire world seemed on course to accept the idea that the liberal democracies of the West, and more particularly the United States, represented the pinnacle of human achievement and that the aspirations of people everywhere could only be met through the free market. It mattered not a jot on their view that, precisely at this time, the US was cajoling nations into joining an international coalition designed to bring Saddam Hussein to heel and bomb Iraq, as American officials with pride and insouciance declared, “back into the stone age”.  Those who saw ominous signs of what unchecked American power might mean worldwide, and in the US itself, for the prospects of democracy and social justice were dismissed as some pathetic remnants of a warped communist vision that could not recognize the dawn of a new age of freedom.  “Muslim rage”, the phrase made popular by the likes of the Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis, was a variant on the idea that those who failed to recognize the supremacy of the free market economy and the rights-bearing individual as the apotheosis of the idea of human liberty were religious fanatics, troglodytes, or just under-developed.

The First Gulf War was followed by another a decade later and still a decade later the Arab Spring came and went.  The promise of revolution was everywhere but it was thwarted by dictators, warlords, and religious fanatics who did everything they could to sow terror and exact the submission of ordinary people. But it was not only the Middle East that was imploding, aided by inept American foreign policy and the presumption that what is good for America is good for the world.  We may leave aside for the present the problem that America scarcely even knew what was good for itself. The last decade has seen a large number of countries—Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Brazil, India, the US, among others—take the turn towards authoritarianism.  Russia has been inventive in transforming Stalinism into oligarchic despotism and China seems determined to let its heavy hand fall where it will.  At no other time since the end of World War II has so much of the world seemed so susceptible to political authoritarianism.  That may be one reason why many people are rejoicing that the US, after what are often described as the nightmarish years of the Trump Presidency, seems set after Joe Biden’s triumph to rejoin “the international community” and assume leadership of the “free world”. 

However, what 2020 has indubitably established is that the US is altered forever and cannot simply pick up from where, as decent people fondly imagine, it veered off course in a fit of absentmindedness, forgetful of its supposed mission as the world’s greatest democracy to serve as a beacon of light to the world.  The dominant narrative that the US has been spectacularly successful in circulating has American democracy being carved out of the aspirations and enlightened thinking of “The Founding Fathers”, but the genocidal impulse is just as inextricably built into the warp and woof of the American nation.  Generations of immigrants, the vast majority of whom are profusely thankful for the “good life” that America has given them, have themselves played a critical role in wholly disguising the unimpeachable fact that the words “America” and “genocide” are joined at the hip. They are not the only ones who need to be reminded that the origins of the United States lie in the demographic holocaust perpetrated by the white man against Native Americans, whose annihilation was as much willed as it was precipitated by the “Old World” diseases from which the indigenous people had no immunity.

It is epidemic disease which ironically is leading at this very moment to the unraveling of the United States.  Most of the world is reeling from the coronavirus pandemic but the US is hurtling into the abyss of death.  On one single day, December 16, over 3600 Americans died; 250,000 people are being infected daily over the course of the last week as this is being written and 17.5 million Americans have already been identified as COVID positive.  The world is baffled by the fact that the US, the world’s richest and most powerful country, accounts for almost a fifth of the global mortality of 1.675 million.  Health care expenditures per capita are significantly higher in the US than they are in any other country, and the US boasts of having half of the world’s Nobel Laureates in medicine and the sciences and the most advanced laboratories for medical research.  And, yet, for nearly ten months, barring a short and partial respite over the summer months, the country has been awash with news of shortages of essential medical supplies, personal protective equipment, ventilators, and ICU beds.  The dead have overwhelmingly come from the ranks of the very old, ethnic minorities—a heavily disproportionate number of African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans—and prisoners.  These are people who, as has happened so often in the American past, have been envisioned as disposable. Is it too much of a stretch to think that what is on witness in the US today is a permissive genocide?

Humiliation is a trifling inadequate to convey the extent of the spectacle that the US has become to people around the world to whom the US is part of their national imaginary.  These are people who feel more invested in the American elections than elections in their own country; these are people who feel the pain of the US as it if it were their pain.  They would like to put the misfortunes of the US down to the ineptness even callousness of President Trump; among the more informed, there is also a greater awareness of how the federal structure of American governance, the strong traditions of states’ rights, and the deep suspicion with which many Americans view the state have contributed to the highly decentralized and chaotic American response to the pandemic.  But the problems run much deeper:  public political discourse in the US sometimes conveys the impression of being conducted by Rip Van Winkles who went to sleep and awoke 20 years later to find a world beyond their comprehension. While the pandemic has been raging on, Americans have been stockpiling on their guns.  If only one could shoot the virus dead!  When one adds idiocy to the genocidal impulse, the outcome adds a touch of the surreal to the lethal.

It is not, however, the coronavirus that fundamentally ails the country.  The more sensitive Americans are aghast at how dysfunctional the political system has become and the deep divisions that characterize the political landscape.  It is common to hear of the erosion of trust, the lack of “bipartisanship”, the frequent deadlocks in Congress, and the onslaught on civil servants.  But all of this is still within the realm of the conventional liberal imagination.  In truth, however much some would like to pin it all on Trump, the social and political ills that were always lurking in the shadows have become more visible and pronounced.  It is no longer possible to speak of the Republican party as a legitimate political party. Its leaders are little better than hoodlums and mafia dons; they emit a stench not only of white supremacism but of self-aggrandizement, unchecked greed, and, most disturbingly, a total disregard for truth and utter lack of compassion for the poor, the weak, and the marginalized.  Similarly, the “divide” between “red” and “blue” states, liberals and conservatives, and the hinterland and the coasts is misleading, as the regressive politics of the state of California—chock-full of “far-left” and “radical Marxists” in the absurdly comical worldview of Republicans—in    so many domains of life amply demonstrates, and vastly understates the extent to which the US is unraveling.  To be sure, the US will not crumble the way a cookie crumbles:  empires do not die overnight, and there is much resilience and goodness in the American character.  Nevertheless, those who live and flourish by brutalizing others cannot but become brutalized themselves.  There can be little doubt that, to use the historians’ phrase, 2020 will be a “turning point” in American and thus global history.

First published in a slightly shorter version as “The Year of American Reckoning” in the Indian Express (print and online editions), 24 December 2020.

Translated into Estonian by Martin Aus and available here: http://techglobaleducation.com/aasta-mille-ameerika-lahti-harutas/

17 thoughts on “The Year that America Unraveled

  1. Pingback: Some Thoughts and Doubts about the Chinese Century | Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal

  2. It’s really interesting that you begin this discussion by discussing the cold war. I grew up attending a British school and as the British and Americans were on the same side, and the victors are the ones who write history, I always learnt about America representing human achievement, capitalism, the free market and the American dream which was the only way forward both at the time and currently. However, as US foreign policy has always been known for, the only way they maintain their supremacy is through money and weapons. If you go back to the beginning of the cold war and look at America’s policies of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, “economic aid” and “foreign intervention” have been the terms used when the US added surveillance onto the rest of the world in order to maintain their supremacy. Nowadays, we question why the US is doing so badly relative to other countries in terms of the pandemic however weapons and money have nothing to do with keeping your population alive against a virus and thus it sadly doesn’t shock me that this has been the outcome.

    Like

  3. Hello, professor. Indeed, America appears a lot of problem in 2020, and in recent time there are more and more question about American policy, economic, and social life. The decline of the United States is manifested in many aspects, such as the weakening of political influence, the reduction of global economic share, the contraction of military power, and the embarrassing situation of strong culture. In addition, there is a core factor in the decline of the United States, and too many examples have proved that this factor can not be ignored and is fatal to any country. That is the ethnic composition of a country, to be exact, is the problem of the main ethnic group. The complexity and confusion of ethnic composition have brought various problems to the United States, such as the discrimination between ethnic groups, conflicts between different cultures, the weakening of cohesion caused by various concepts, a large number of demonstrations and demonstrations erupted. Various extreme ideas have been rampant in various parts of the United States, and ethnic groups have formed fierce confrontation with each other. Political standing and rolling have begun to emerge, The central government has become increasingly weak in binding on local governments and ethnic groups.

    Like

  4. Hello, professor. As a world power, the United States has done things over the years that do not match its status as a powerful country. In order to gain interest, the United States often uses economic sanctions, export restrictions and other means to threaten other countries, and even uses the way of war to suppress them, which has brought many regions into deep suffering. A scenario of American decline has been argued over and over again. Many people believe that things will get worse. Instead of restoring peace, as many people expect, some countries will be unable to be repressed, and others will suffer. In recent years, the United States has gradually put pressure on the focus of the Asia-Pacific region, so it is more to support Japan but also to provide more than 100 F-35 fighter jets, The Asian region has the largest number of fifth-generation aircraft country. Once the American hegemony disappears, Japan will lose some influence without the support of the United States, and its claims to the surrounding waters will therefore be impossible to realize. A US collapse would probably have the least impact on the European Union, which already has many agreements with the big eastern powers, so it is hard for European countries to be affected by a weak US.

    Like

  5. I do agree with the article and the previous comments by other students. America is politically, socially, and economically “unraveling” or becoming weaker. Adding on to this problem is the current condition with the pandemic that kills hundreds and thousands of people each day, similar to the Native American’s annihilation through the diseases of the Europeans, the “Old World.” However, what strikes me the most is how the US is unraveling from within, not from foreign influence. There is a growing divide between Republicans and Democrats in the government, states attempting to gain more power/weaken the federal government, and the appalling prevalence of racism (white supremacy, AAPI hate, etc.) in society. These contribute and cause the US to steer off from its “supposed mission as the world’s greatest democracy to serve as a beacon of light to the world.” However, I do not believe that the US is beyond repair. The situation could get better as there is a growing awareness and want for positive change in society.

    Like

  6. In 2020 the whole world was involved in Covid-19, which caused the death rate to improve and economic recession. The biggest unexpected thing is like the first superpower country, United States’ performance is disappointing. The United States has the best medical care, but it has the most significant number of infected people, which leads to a rumor “the disintegration of the U.S. ” The trues is, America is facing many problems during 2020 like COVID-19 which caused many death and economic recession and the ” black lives Matters ” movement, resulting in political problems. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 because of political issues. Now, Americans face the same situation (political issues), but America is made up of many ethnic groups. The racial problems have a long history, which is the main problem that exists. As the saying goes, unity is strength, only all The citizens will make a country great.

    Like

  7. In 2020 the whole world was involved in Covid-19, which caused the death rate to increased and economic recession. The biggest unexpected thing is like the first superpower country, United States’ performance is disappointing. The United States has the best medical care, but it has the most significant number of infected people, which leads to a rumor “the disintegration of the U.S. ” The trues is, America is facing many problems during 2020 like COVID-19 which caused many death and economic recession and the ” black lives Matters ” movement, resulting in political problems. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 because of political issues. Now, Americans face the same situation (political issues), but America is made up of many ethnic groups. Such, the racial problem is the most difficulty problem to solve. For me, the parade during the epidemic it made the epidemic accelerated expansion which has result in an uncontrollable situation.

    Like

  8. I really agree with the point that “In truth, however much some would like to pin it all on Trump, the social and political ills that were always lurking in the shadows have become more visible and pronounced.” I think that the election of Donald Trump in the first place was indicative of several pre-existing issues, and in addition, he himself did not magically implant hateful rhetoric into peoples’ heads (to a certain extent). He created an environment in which people felt they could openly express the views they’d held for a very long time. Donald Trump did not force the United States off its path of perfection and success, this country has deep rooted issues that have been festering for a long period of time — issues Americans have finally been forced to reckon with. Another point I felt was important was the “permissive genocide” or willingness to sacrifice/endanger the lives of groups deemed less important in American society. This ties into the notion of development as a sacrificial ideology and how there are always groups that will be prioritized over others (look at the prevalence of environmental racism in the United States — where are pipelines, polluting factories, nuclear waste plants located?) They are placed in Black, brown, indigenous and low income communities. Just during the pandemic, the same migrant farmworkers who are treated horrendously are now deemed “essential workers” and praised for putting their lives at risk (without much of a choice) during the pandemic. Communities in near vicinity to factories, pipelines, etc. have higher rates of health issues such as asthma or other respiratory conditions which makes them much more susceptible to Covid-19 complications as well. This is a theme that has been ongoing throughout the history of this country. Certain groups will always be the first to be used as scapegoats or sacrificed in times of crisis.

    Like

  9. The unraveling of the United States in my estimation seems to stem from America’s terrible foreign policy and arrogant demeanor towards other countries that may not have the current high standard of living or resources available within America. This leads to America imposing itself on other countries in the attempt to establish “democracy” which is often played out by coups or wars that destabilize that state to establish a political tool that will abide by America’s interests. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 seems to me to have shown the ineptness of the U.S to the whole world in demonstrating that though they often criticize others for not being more independent and robust like themselves they in return have failed in protecting their own people. This may be as a result of the Trump Presidency or maybe have a connection with more of a systemic issue that has finally been revealed within the political incompatibility which has left America vulnerable in making decisive action more quickly to help those most afflicted from the pandemic.

    Like

  10. It seems that the largest disadvantage for the US is the pride that it has built following WWII and the Cold War. It is pretty obvious that the US is perceived as the most powerful nation in the world, but with this has came the idea in some people’s minds that we are some how above the rest of the world. Our foreign policy under President Trump is just one example where the masses have rallied the behind the blatant discrimination of people of color. Along with the belief that this virus would somehow just pass over the US after it has torn through several nations in the east left us vulnerable this deadly virus due to the delayed reaction from our prideful government.

    Like

  11. I had never previously considered that the coronavirus pandemic was a form of genocide being exacted on the American people by the United States government. In fact, I had always, at some level, considered the “lack” of genocides perpetrated by the American government as a point of pride of some sorts. While China had been massacring the Uyghurs and the Burmese had been exacting ethnic cleaning on the Rohingya Muslims, I felt comfort in the fact that, while the United States were not doing much to intervene in these countries, at least they were not exacting similar policies on religious or ethnic minorities. This essay shed light on things I had not considered- the treatment of people living below the poverty line, the injustices committed to Native Americans, dating back to the Trail of Tears and even earlier. All of these groups’ mistreatment by the American government was exposed by how poorly they have been cared for during the pandemic, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to derive any pride from being “American”.

    Like

  12. 2020 was certainly a year that we and the rest of the world witnessed just how fragmented American society has become. The threat to the country is at home, and it is being caused by us, not a foreign power. Our people would rather yell over each other than to actually take a moment to listen to each other. We are all Americans and should have the best interest of our country at heart. However, it has become all about us vs. them. Neither side is willing to compromise; each side sees the other as the enemy. I don’t think the country will completely unravel, but the divide between Republicans and Democrats and within society needs to be minimized. We need better leaders in Congress. They can’t fuel into the divide of the citizens. We need someone to remind us that we should seek the best for the collective good and that compromise is necessary for the well-being of the country.

    Like

  13. This article skillfully tied COVID to America’s history of genocide and international interference. In fact, the portion detailing the current genocide of marginalized groups due to lack of government and organizational help for pandemic relief was critical, as this rarely gets addressed in the media. This issue paints part of the picture detailing the overarching cause of America’s demise: political division. The Republican party, which stands so strongly united that racist, sexist, and xenophobic behavior rarely goes punished and the Democratic Party, which has taken cancel culture to such an extent that many members often fight among themselves rather than search for common solutions. These party issues further heighten tensions, as the U.S. experiences such a divide that political parties aim to win rather than compromise or find the best solution (George Washington’s farewell speech has stood the test of time). Although most of the country identifies as moderate, the average citizen is forced to choose one side or the other. This conflict leads to false information and lack of forward progress, which will truly show itself when China surpasses the U.S. as a global superpower and America finds itself scrambling to cling onto power and find its new place in a changing world.

    Like

  14. Hello Professor

    I think this piece does an amazing job of summarizing the disgust and frustrations that have been increasing within the American Populace. It seems so obvious that the Republican Party is the party of deceit and lies, but I honestly don’t understand how people still arent seeing it. These last 4 years under Trump just highlight the ailments and tragedy of the nation, but make no mistake, Trump isn’t the root of the problem. Trump is the personification of all the hate, greed, and vile behavior that has been expressed and tolerated by a majority of the population since America was founded. Anyone who doesn’t agree with them is labeled America Haters and relentlessly attacked, often with no basis. It seems every day that the Right-wing goes farther to the right, all the while blaming the Left for it and saying that the Left is the cause of all America’s problems. Hopefully one day America will wake up, but that day doesn’t seem close at all.

    Like

  15. Hey professor,

    I take interest in one sentence near the end of this article: “Nevertheless, those who live and flourish by brutalizing others cannot but become brutalized themselves.”

    It got me wondering— how do recently unseated hegemons of world power fair?

    Well, there’s the example of Britain coming off of the height of it’s power. If you ask me, the Brits seem to have done fine for themselves. Especially when you consider just how much ill will they built up in literally every country on earth. Surely if anyone would become the target of brutality after giving up the supposed ‘world throne,’ it would be the country who got there by violently suppressing each and every nation they could find. And yet, Britain still is seen as one of the most influential countries, they have a seat on the UN Security Council. They would be a member of the potentially very powerful if not for a complete unforced error on their part (Brexit).

    Russia, after its time of great power as the Soviet Union, went through some rough years, of course. Certainly worse off than Britain. And yet their standing international could certainly stand to be worse. They remain at least a regional power in the Middle East.

    I wonder what other examples there are. Is there any instance of a country going from greatest in the world to “brutalized” as you say? I am unsure.

    Like

  16. Starting off the essay with the Cold War reminds readers that after the end of the Cold War it seemed that the United States would be the rulers of the world for the foreseeable future. I do not agree that 2020 is the “year that the United States unraveled” or that the United States is unraveling at all. What the United States has done to the Middle East and the rest of the world proves that it is indubitably the world’s greatest power. Countries were leveled. It is unfair to say that the pandemic is causing the United States to unravel, or that the pandemic is only affecting the United States. Countless other countries have been ravaged by the pandemic. The effect is global. The United States is still the top power, and I would hardly say it is unraveling.

    Like

  17. As soon as I read the line “… more particularly the United States, represented the pinnacle of human achievement and that the aspirations of people everywhere could only be met through the free market.” I was reminded of my roommate and I just had to share this story in a post.
    I grew up in a small conservative town in Central Valley, California and a headline like this one would start a riot. If I said it out loud, people would call me anti-American. It’s absolutely insane to me that after this year, some Americans still refuse to acknowledge that there’s still progress for us to make as a society! I think there’s absolutely no shame in challenging the way our society is around you, learning from the past (and the mistakes we made this year), applying it, and working towards an even better future. In fact, I think constantly working towards something better should be considered the American spirit. I got into a fight with my roommate this past year (mind you, I don’t usually surround myself with people I fight with) about the state of the country. I mentioned how we can improve various systems and make our society even better and she was so incredibly butthurt and told me to leave the country if I didn’t like it here. I was stunned and I just responded with “I do like it here, I like it so much I want to make it better. I’m not going to settle.” Is American full of settlers (get it?). I also definitely agree on your point about thankful immigrants. My parents were the same way a few years back and this year really showed them the failures of America – with COVID, BLM, elections, etc.

    Now I’m thinking about the dangers of nationalism and getting stuck in a society that never moves forward.. Let’s hope that’s not the case here.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s