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OP-ED: The implications of the American carnage

  • Published at 02:11 am January 15th, 2021
National Guard members gather at the Capitol
National Guard members gather at the Capitol Reuters

It can be a slippery slope into rage, violence, and the destruction of democracy

With apologies to the great TS Eliot, this will be how the world ends, not with a bang but a simper. 

All through the past few days, the world has watched in unbounded horror as American politics -- in the very heart of the oldest democracy in the world -- almost entirely unravelled in an extraordinary carnival of carnage. The craven freshman senator Josh Hawley has “blood on his hands” (according to his own hometown Kansas City Star newspaper). About his equally oleaginous senior Senate colleague, The New York Times says: “Never Forget What Ted Cruz Did.”

Both smarmy opportunists have played mere bit parts to the rampaging, out of control -- and now twice-impeached -- President Trump as he sought to overturn the election results from last November that delivered sweeping victory to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Long weeks of his lies and braggadocio were broadly dismissed as cynical posturing, that would surely yield to peaceful transition of power. We were told nothing less could ever happen in America. But then, as it were, putsch came to shove, and we all saw the crazed, beleaguered president indeed attempt to overthrow his succession.

This plain reality seems to have shocked the Americans most: They really did think their vaunted systems would never allow it to happen. But for those who have seen these scenarios before, in other countries that crumbled from their own internal contradictions, even this extent of Trumpist debacle was entirely predictable.

The great chess champion Garry Kasparov, who lived through the shocking dismemberment of the USSR, knew it was coming all along. As far back as 2016, he warned: “Trump is very consistent in his attacks against US institutions, US electoral system, free press, now law enforcement. And it’s worrisome because that’s what every dictator did, starting his campaign on destroying the pillars of democracy.”

The brilliant Bosnian writer Aleksandr “Sasha” Hemon, who had been marooned in the US in 1992 when his hometown of Sarajevo was reduced to smithereens and Yugoslavia fell apart, raised the alert about Trump even before he became president, saying “people are addicted to the inertia of their common reality, to the desperate belief that everything shall continue as it is simply because it’s been going fine up to this point.”

After Trump badgered and bullied Biden in their first debate last year, I had written to Hemon for his reaction, and he responded with these shockingly prescient comments: “There will be no righting of the course. 

The Trumpists will not back away, and will continue to try and escalate the conflict, to the point of mass violence. 

This cannot be resolved within the confines of the US political system, as it is obsolescent and weak. It will break, sooner or later. My hope is that something different, and better, will rise from its ashes.”

We don’t seem quite at the point of collapse yet, though the past week was disturbingly bookended by astonishing mob scenes from the US Capitol, and equally worrying footage of that august institution’s corridors crammed with heavily armed soldiers. 

For now, some of the institutional framework of checks and balances appears to have remained resilient. We know the small cohort of Capitol police was most likely compromised, with some of it acquiescent to the insurrectionists, but the army did not mutiny, or choose sides. The constitution continues reigning supreme.

But there can be no doubt something important shifted, and the veneer of inevitability and invincibility will never return. The writer James Surowiecki has written persuasively about “the wisdom of crowds.” 

His logic extends to the mob. Now that the innermost bastions of American governance have fallen on live television, there isn’t anyone anywhere who does not realize how vulnerable they are. 

And in fact, the emergency is ongoing: Several Republican legislators have tearfully confided to colleagues that they can no longer vote their conscience because of fear for their family’s lives. An atmosphere of implicit, murderous violence pervades the American polity.

Many people feel schadenfreude about this situation, from grim satisfaction to outright pleasure, because the immensely disruptive and discriminatory hegemon is finally feeling some of the same pain it routinely inflicts on other societies around the world. 

Those sentiments are shallow, short-lived, immature, and unwise. The world knows better. We in South Asia especially acutely realize just how quick, steep, and slippery the slope can be into the swamp of rage, violence, the politics of intolerance and destruction of democracy. 

Back in April 1963, in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the civil rights giant Martin Luther King wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” They apply in full measure today.

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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