It scarcely seems possible that it was a mere 30 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 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 “back into the stone age”. Those who saw ominous signs of what unchecked American power might mean worldwide, and in the US itself, for democracy and social justice were dismissed as pathetic remnants of a warped communist vision that could not recognise the dawn of a new age of freedom.
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. 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 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 successful in circulating has American democracy being carved out of the enlightened thinking of “the founding fathers”, but the genocidal impulse is just as inextricably built into the history of the American nation.
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 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 3,600 Americans died and 17.5 million Americans have already been identified as COVID positive. It is baffling that the world’s richest and most powerful country accounts for almost a fifth of the global mortality of 1.675 million.
Healthcare expenditures per capita are significantly higher in the US than any other country, and it 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 10 months, barring a short 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 it is part of their national imaginary. They would like to put the misfortunes of the US down to the ineptness, even callousness, of 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 decentralised 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!
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 characterise 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. 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 marginalised. Similarly, the “divide” between “red” and “blue” states, liberals and conservatives, and the hinterland and the coasts considerably understates the extent to which the US is unraveling. To be sure, the US will not crumble like a cookie: empires do not die overnight, and there is much resilience and goodness in the American character. Nevertheless, those who live and flourish by brutalising others are themselves brutalised. There can be little doubt that, to use the historians’ phrase, 2020 will be a “turning point” in American and thus global history.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 24, 2020 under the title “Year of American Reckoning”. Lal is the author of The Fury of COVID-19: The Politics, Histories, and Unrequited Love of the Coronavirus