Protesters demonstrate as a store burns in Minneapolis. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
We are seeing dark and scary times in the US. 100,000 plus are dead from the coronavirus. There are now than 40 million unemployed Americans and the unemployment rate hovers around 15%. And Americans are rioting and cities are burning.
The coronavirus has shut down the US for roughly two months, and only this week are most states opening back up. The virus, with its grim death toll, has been headline news for weeks now. And orders by authorities, such as “shelter-in-place” and wearing masks, and so on, have been subjects of political fighting between the right and left. With the Americans stuck indoors, economic life has ground to a halt, with dramatic consequences. Millions of people are out of work or furloughed, seeking unemployment, and desperate for life to return to normal. While the majority of Americans have taken the virus and its effects mostly in stride, understanding the severity of the health crisis and the need to stay indoors and maintain social distancing, there’s a pocket of citizens who are angry. Angry at medical professionals. Angry at politicians. Angry at the WHO. Angry at the virus.
On top of all of that, we now have another prominent case of police brutality against a person of color. On May 25th, an African-American man from Minneapolis, Minnesota, George Floyd, apparently, attempted to make a purchase at a deli using a counterfeit $20 bill. (It’s still unclear whether he even knew he possessed fake money, or whether he deliberately tried to swindle the deli). The deli called the police in response. But the four officers who were dispatched to the scene made a minor situation far worse. An unarmed Floyd was handcuffed and showed little resistance, though the police pushed a shoved him around. Eventually, three of the officers were on top of Floyd (while the other officer stood guard), subduing an already subdued guy, and one of them grinded his knee into Floyd’s neck for almost nine full minutes. As this happened, Floyd clearly suffered, claiming he couldn’t breathe. The police showed little interest in Floyd’s struggles, and he died on the street, in the exact spot where he was savagely detained. In response, the four cops were fired. Additionally, the officer who killed Floyd was charged on three counts, including 2nd degree murder, while the three other officers were charged with aiding and abetting 2nd degree murder.
People of color and their white allies are justifiably angry and frustrated about the Floyd killing, specifically, but also by the years and years of police brutality and rampant political, economic and social discrimination against non-whites. Additionally, please keep in mind there is also a larger recent context to these developments. The number of hate crimes are way up. The presence and activities (in the streets and online) of white nationalists are an increasing domestic threat in the US. On several occasions, President Trump has aided and abetted, even given cover to, violent white racists. Furthermore, the Floyd murder is only the latest in a string of recent killings of African Americans (Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, etc.) by police and/or white Americans. Viewed in context, then, racial tensions have been simmering, and the Floyd murder catalyzed people into action.
Protests and violence first broke out in Minneapolis, and have spread across the entire US. Since May 26th, protests, violence, and mayhem have hit the US. Heavily militarized police are on the streets. Unmarked security forces--secret police?--are on patrol in Washington, DC. Protesters and police have fought; police have even used gas against protesters. Buildings and cars have burned. Stores have been damaged and looted. Cities are in complete turmoil. And the political, economic, and social effects will reverberate through the US for years to come.
Most of the protesters have been peaceful and have good intentions, it seems. They’re protesting injustice and taking to the streets to vent their agony. A small contingent of protesters are looking to start or participate in illegal activities, like looting damaged stores. More ominously, according to reports, the protesters have been infiltrated by white nationalists seeking to hijack the moment and cause problems in their name. The infamous "Boogaloo Bois" have appeared at dozens of protests, looking to menace and threaten protesters. And similarly, unaffiliated armed white dudes have shown up in Philadelphia (baseball bats and hammers) and Indiana (guns). Three white extremists in Las Vegas were arrested on terrorism charges, including "conspiring to carry out a plan that began in April in conjunction with protests to reopen businesses closed because of the coronavirus and later sought to capitalize on protests over George Floyd." And we know white supremacist social media platforms are actively encouraging members to use violence in the hopes of starting a race war--an idea known as "acclerationism" and is popular among white supremacists.
It’s easy to take a narrow view and look at all the health and economic problems as unrelated from the protests and racial issues in the US. After all, the former two issues (health crisis and the economic fallout) and the latter one (protests) have different proximate causes—the coronavirus with respect to the first two, the killing of an unarmed black man regarding the last one. Moreover, racism, police brutality, and violence against people of color have a long and distinct history in the US. But are they really different from each other?
I think if we zoom out, we see something different. I do, at least. I see the internal crises in the US—health, race, political, economic crises—the result of a profound leadership problem. Simply put, the ongoing chaos in the US is the impact of bipartisan national leadership failures. Americans are sharply polarized, increasingly indifferent to the plight of others on the opposite side of aisle, can’t agree on facts, and can’t even agree on who or what America is. Why? Because national Democrats and Republicans have prioritized power above all else, and have engaged in a protracted power struggle, politicizing everything while failing to stand up for national unity, America’s democracy, and moral decency and rectitude. I’m willing to place more blame on the GOP, but the Democrats aren’t blameless here.
Let’s look at the culprits in brief detail.
1. Trump is a massive failure. He’s grossly incompetent. He’s a narcissist. He’s a habitual liar. He routinely engages in race baiting. He spouts conspiracy theories. He’s an authoritarian. And he clearly has little to no moral backbone. His modus operandi right now is to get re-elected in November. If that means he has to figuratively or even literally burn down the US in the process, then so be it.
His performance on COVID is embarrassing. For weeks, he downplayed, ignored, and failed to act on guidance given to him by his own government. His delayed response cost roughly 36,000-54,000 Americans their lives, according to research from Columbia University. He’s recommended a host of downright ridiculous and dangerous home remedies to combat COVID, against the advice of medical professionals. He’s repeatedly patted himself on the back that ONLY 100,000 Americans have perished from the coronavirus. At this point, Trump’s more interested in deflecting blame, with China increasingly feeling Trump’s ire.
Trump has a long and troubled past with respect to racial issues. In 2017, I wrote: “Well before he was a political figure and had to make political calculations about his words and actions, Trump had a checkered past with various identity groups. He (along with his dad and Trump Management) was sued in the 1970s for housing discrimination, played a part in spreading false statements and riling up New Yorkers in the Central Park Five case, and aroused suspicions of bigotry during his Apprentice days. And of course, what helped Trump rise to political prominence, even before his formal participation in US politics, was his 'Birther' antics, a xenophobic and racially-tinged campaign against former President Barack Obama.”
And in his time as president, Trump has fared little better. Trump’s support for white nationalists in Charlottesville in 2017 is but one in a string of examples of his taking the side of violent white Americans. Earlier this year, when armed protesters stormed the capital and threatened Michigan politicians, Trump begged the state to take easy on them. He even stoked the fires of radicalism and violence in April, when he Tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Of course, this is a marked and intentional contrast to his latest Archie Bunkerisms. In this recent Tweet from Trump, during an extraordinarily tumultuous time, Trump wrote: “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” His dog whistle here isn’t very subtle. His answer to the protests supporting the rights of people of color, ostensibly, is to threaten American citizens with violence—a far cry from his position on white protesters. Furthermore, the use of the word “thugs,” in the context in which he used the word, is commonly interpreted nowadays as a racial slur—akin to the N-word—against African Americans.
Frankly, I’m not so sure that Trump is all that bothered by the protests and violence. The ongoing chaos in cities across the US allows him to use tough rhetoric and get a photo-op. Moroever, it enables Trump to play the “law and order” card—used by Nixon and other right-wing politicians over the years—that he’s very comfortable with. Indeed, Trump recently tweeted, “Law & Order!” The instability allows him to play the tough-guy, using and abusing police and military forces for political purposes, and then take credit for cleaning up the mess in the streets once everything has calmed down. The good part is that some prominent military officials, such as former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, are now speaking out, condemning Trump's politicization of the military and his divisive rule. The downside is that Trump is no longer flirting with authoritarianism, but overtly leaning on the tools and strategies of illiberal dictators, which poses a direct and immediate existential threat to America's democracy. How serious is this political and institutional crisis? Esteemed policy wonk Robin Wright, today in The New Yorker, wonders if America is becoming a Banana Republic.
2. Congressional Republicans have failed, too. The GOP has silently abetted and sometimes vocally supported and assisted Trump in whatever he’s said and done during his presidency. How many Republicans have challenged Trump? Overall, Mitt Romney has done a decent job. But who else? The Republican party is now the party of Trump, and so just about every Congressional Republican is worried about running afoul from the party line, which adheres to strict conformity with and praise of Trump. The risk of drifting from the party line, mind you, is that deviant Republicans—those who dare to critique Trump—could get primaried by even “Trumpier” candidates. All of this has degraded and perverted a formerly esteemed political party, transforming it into decoration and puppetry. In exchange for degrading their personal and political reputations and integrity, Republicans (both in and out of Congress) try to take solace in knowing they've gotten their tax cuts and two new conservative members of the Supreme Court. But in consumating that deal with the devil, they've unleashed a political virus that's wreaking havoc on conservatism, the Republican Party, and the US.
3. Congressional Democrats have also failed. Yeah, Democrats only control the House of Representatives, but they are stakeholders here as well. They can’t just blame Trump and the GOP; they bear some responsibility. And not only that, national Democrats have consistently allowed Trump to dominate them. Of course, he has the bully pulpit and tens of millions of Twitter followers. But if the Democrats were serious—really serious—they could be far more creative in pressing the case for the policies and values they supposedly believe in, and communicate clearly and repeatedly those views to the public. Making television appearances on CNN and MSNBC isn’t enough. Democrats could hold daily press conferences at symbolic sites; plan and coordinate peaceful national protests; commit to formulating a comprehensive domestic policy and governing strategy with meaningful and constant input and buy-in from a cross-section of American society; engage more frequently with and be much more responsive to the interests and concerns of local communities—don’t just hold photo-ops; and so on. This is just a small list of ideas. I’m sure more creative and innovative folks can think of other, better ideas the Democrats could implement.
If there is any ray of sunshine at the moment, it’s the role of some local and state politicians, who are having to clean up the failures of national, federal officials and politicians. This is evident in the case of COVID, as it is in the Floyd case and the ongoing protests/riots. I’m thinking specifically, just off the top of my head, of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. (There are others, and I’m sure some of you might have your favorite. Apologies for overlooking anyone.) They’ve tried to display calm, sensible leadership. But even the mayors and governors, even the good ones, have been overwhelmed by the severity of these crises and haven’t been perfect in their decisions. Governors and mayors of all political stripes have been slow to react to the growing violence and looting. My guess is that they believed that adding beefed up, militarized police to a powder keg situation would only exacerbate tensions. Unfortunately, in the absence of strong policing, swaths of the US, extending from cities into suburban areas, have erupted in anarchy.
The US is at its lowest point in 50 plus years. It’s not hyperbole to say that America is coming apart at the seams. Americans are out of work, sick, angry, and frightened. And political authorities are largely indifferent, feckless, craven, and incompetent. And the worst of the politicians are actively cheering on the chaos. The answer to the ills of America won’t be found in new leaders or policies. The solution, I suspect, will require a more fundamental reassessment and restructuring of American society. We need to rethink the role of the state, relations between the state and society, and relations between American citizens. Anything less than that will simply paper over the existing deep-seated problems in 21st century America.
*Note: this post was updated on June 4th.