STATE OF AMERICA
It’s a politically sizzling summer for the US on domestic and foreign policy, geopolitics and a presidential race
Although it is mid-summer in the northern hemisphere, things are buzzing there in international relations, in American domestic policy and among all those Republican candidates eyeing their party’s nomination for president.
For the past month, this author has mostly been on a break from writing regular columns (save for two pieces on an update on Russia’s Ukraine invasion and then on the Wagner Group rebellion). Instead, he has been sorting through 40 years of saved (read: hoarded) paper and home files.
This has included old insurance documents, copies of long-ago medical statements, stacks of catalogues from galleries that no longer exist, and a seemingly endless collection of dozens of years of science, politics and economics journals.
Then there has been the near-Sisyphean challenge to bring some order to the thousands of books slowly taking over our house — books on Africa went upstairs, books on music, literature, Asia, gardening, art and comparative religion stayed downstairs.
There has also been time to read some novels and biographies, attend dance programmes, absorb the impact of several important art exhibitions and even supervise some extended but necessary home renovations.
Unfortunately, we did not make major progress on two of our goals: revising a social history of Newtown, Johannesburg, and beginning some real work on a play or perhaps a film script about John Robinson, “The Brown Condor”.
Largely forgotten now, Robinson was an African American, unsung aviation hero who joined Ethiopia’s resistance to fascist Italy in the 1930s, even becoming Emperor Haile Selassie’s personal pilot and head of the country’s air force until the Italians succeeded in conquering that nation. I will get to these efforts, I’ve promised myself.
Over this period, of course, America’s domestic and international political circumstances were definitely not put on pause. Inevitably, the mass killings (defined as more than two deaths in a single incident) by gunfire in America continued, including several during the Fourth of July weekend.
There seems no end to this plague — including one more incident this past weekend and now reaching more than 350 in the current year. Too many people seem to have resigned themselves to this happening over and over, with no easy way to stop it. No one seriously expects to see any major forms of gun control legislation becoming law any time soon, despite the despair over the continuing carnage.
The Supreme Court
Meanwhile, in addition to various other confounding decisions issued by the country’s Supreme Court — a body now firmly split between a six-member conservative majority and a feisty three-member minority — the Supreme Court has delivered yet two more important rulings.
One was to reject the notion of state legislature supremacy to nullify the actual judgment of an electorate (one of the key parts of the 2020 election denialist fantasy and plan of attack against the Biden win). That ruling confounded the simple left-right split in the court. On the other hand, a strict liberal/conservative split held firm in a decision that race-based university admissions — otherwise known as affirmative action — are unconstitutional. This decision followed down the path of the much earlier ruling – the Bakke case from California over admission to an ultra-competitive medical school, a ruling that had first moved universities away from a simplistic, race-based admissions formula.
While the recent decision was sometimes described in the media as a black/white racial issue, in fact, one of the two cases brought together in the ruling — one was from Harvard University, the other from the University of North Carolina — began as a complaint by Asian American students and would-be students.
Their argument was based on the “equal protection” clause in the Constitution that affirmative action unfairly disadvantaged Asian American students, in contrast to if admissions decisions were based on grades, test scores and other concrete metrics. Following the current formula has meant Asian American student numbers in freshman classes have been depressed in a discriminatory way.
This decision is now going to provoke universities across the nation to significantly adjust their admissions processes, prompting a likely shift towards a much stronger reliance on socioeconomic status, rather than simply following the distinction of black versus white ethnicity.
This ruling may also have an impact on legacy admissions — those admissions for the children of alumni from prior years and whom universities calculate that their families may donate funding to the school — as well as admissions based on sports prowess. The entering classes in 2024 at many universities may look significantly different from those of prior years as a result.
Congress, the budget and the economy
Over in the legislative branch of the government — the US Congress — rancorous wrestling over the government budget is once again the theme of increasingly furious inter-party fighting.
Congress is now back in session but is soon to be taking its accustomed August break and thus has little time to reach decisions. The earlier budget deal that was a part of the agreement over the debt ceiling only runs until September, after which the government will again be faced with the possibility of running out of funds because they have not, again, been appropriated by Congress.
On the part of the Biden administration, the country’s economic indicators show continued progress. There is historically low unemployment, decreasing levels of inflation and petrol prices, continuing impressive job growth and new plants and infrastructure builds as a result of programmes passed earlier into law.
President Joe Biden has now labelled his administration’s decisions and policies as “Bidenomics”. This has been in the hopes that the cumulative effect of these policies can help to convince an electorate which remains dubious about his presidency, thus sealing the deal for an electoral win a year and a half into the future.
Part of this dubiousness rests on some continuing doubts about his ability to serve another four-year term at his age (and even less enthusiasm for the incumbent vice president), and the ongoing challenge he has had, as one who seems rhetorically challenged, in making a convincing case to voters.
Nonetheless, at the same time, after years of a downward spiral in American-Chinese relations, both due to wrangles about market access and various trade restrictions, and, more recently, with increasingly dangerous, mutual military chest-thumping and tough words (especially about the circumstances of Taiwan), there are modest signs of improvement in the relations between the world’s two largest economies.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s recent visit to China largely took place without public rancour, but with a bow towards a mutual recognition of the deeply intertwined reality of the two economies, or as Yellen observed, there is room enough for both nations in today’s world. There were even some modestly optimistic words that, despite these current storms, the sun will come out tomorrow. Yes, a Chinese official even used that metaphor. It almost sounded like the lyrics plucked from the showstopper song of the musical, “Annie”.
On Sunday, Biden departed for meetings in Europe, beginning with time with the British prime minister and then on to the annual Nato leaders’ summit, this time in Vilnius, Lithuania. This meeting will include Nato’s newest member, Finland, and the US president is hopeful he can jolly the two recalcitrants — Recep Erdogan of Turkey and Victor Orban of Hungary — into voting in favour of admitting Sweden as well.
Membership in Nato must be by unanimous consent of its members. Sweden formally applied for membership, in tandem with Finland — after two centuries of neutrality — in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Erdogan is publicly bristling over the presence of Kurdish separatists in Sweden as well as the Swedes’ insistence such groups are allowed to exist in their country by virtue of Sweden’s human rights policies and its tolerance of dissent by foreigners.
As far as Hungary goes, the apparent reason for Orban’s continuing friendly relationship with Russia is its imports of oil and natural gas from there, even in the face of Russia’s Ukrainian invasion.
The Biden administration and the Nato secretariat nevertheless remain hopeful these two recalcitrants can be turned around during some intense meetings that take place on the margins of the summit, especially, perhaps, if the stalled sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey moves forward.
Ukraine would also like to join the alliance, but they have effectively been told, no, not yet, at least not while they are actively involved in a war. A member currently engaged in active hostilities, even in response to an invasion, could trigger Article 5 military engagement by Nato’s other members — and no one wants to see a wider war that pits Nato and Russia in direct combat.
Meanwhile, while the Biden administration has successfully managed to hold almost all of Nato’s members in tight harness in the support of Ukraine, especially Central and Eastern European members (aside from Hungary), the current Ukrainian counteroffensive has been much slower and less overwhelming that many had hoped for so far, especially after the ructions of the Wagner Group’s movement to leave the battlefront and take their disputes with the Russian military command via a convoy that moved halfway to Moscow.
In response to Ukrainian pleas for more ammunition, the US decided to ship cluster bomb artillery shells to Ukraine, despite the growing uproar over this decision. American inventories of artillery shells are being drawn down significantly in pursuit of supplying Ukrainian forces, while its cluster shell ammunition stockpile remains available.
The American argument for this decision has been that the Russians are already using such shells against the Ukrainian population and that those shells have a 30% dud rate upon reaching a target, thereby making the individual elements likely candidates for civilian casualties after the battle lines move elsewhere. The US response, further, is that the US version of these shells has only about a 1-2% failure rate, and, in any case, the Ukrainians would be using them against the armed invaders, rather than against their own civilian populations.
Regardless, the decision over the US shipment of cluster bomb ammunition is certain to make the Nato meeting tenser than had been expected, especially since a ban on such weapons has been signed by over a hundred nations, including a number of Nato members.
The presidential election
Simultaneously, of course, the run-up to the American presidential election draws ever closer, inevitably impinging on foreign policy and international economic issues and vice versa. While the Democrats are uneasily set with the incumbent president as their candidate, despite those ageist arguments and other complaints about Biden’s skills, the Republican field is a more complicated affair.
Former president Donald Trump is, improbably, leading the growing pack by wide margins in the polling. Nearly all of his challengers remain mired in single digits of Republicans polled, save for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis seems determined to attack Trump with an even more right-wing agenda — and the argument that he’s the man who can actually deliver the Maga agenda because he isn’t a loose cannon.
Nevertheless, DeSantis’ polling numbers have been falling since his initial entry into the race, with the betting line on him now something like, “the more voters come to know him, the less they like him”.
As for Trump, despite being indicted twice and with the possibility of yet more indictments (and maybe even a conviction) still to come, his polling numbers seem to be rising and contributions to his campaign fund have been close to double those to his chief rival.
Trying to make sense of this, New York Times columnist David French, in a recent article, made an important observation about Trump supporters that helps the rest of us understand this perplexing popularity with a significant share of voters. French wrote that while most media reports focus on Trump’s outrageous statements, his obvious lies and twisted logic, and his illogical, angry rants, most of his supporters enjoy their participation in such events and draw excitement from that.
As French wrote, “If you follow the rallies via Twitter or mainstream newscasts, you see the anger, but you miss the fun. When I was writing for The Dispatch, one of the best pieces we published was a report by Andrew Egger in 2020 about the ‘Front Row Joes,’ the Trump superfans who follow Trump from rally to rally the way some people used to follow the Grateful Dead.
“Egger described the Trump rally perfectly: ‘For enthusiasts, Trump rallies aren’t just a way to see a favourite politician up close. They are major life events: festive opportunities to get together with like-minded folks and just go crazy about America and all the winning the Trump administration’s doing’.”
Joining in on the fun and the joy gained from such participation (even if it is also paired with anger and resentment directed towards the infidels and unbelievers) thus has much in common with the ecstasy of having signed on to a new-found religious belief that explains the universe to a convert. One result of this kind of support is that, as Bakari Sellers, a political analyst on CNN, described it, the road to the nomination cannot be around Donald Trump but must be through him instead; or in popular parlance, “Luke Skywalker must confront Darth Vader.”
Lest readers think it is way too early to be thinking seriously about the 2024 election, one must realise the first caucus or primary in the nominating sequence for Republicans comes on 15 January 2024, a caucus in Iowa — just a few days more than six months from now. Candidates are, accordingly, crisscrossing that state as you read this.
One other thing. In a curious, seemingly tone-deaf turn of events, this caucus will take place on the Martin Luther King national holiday, even as some GOP candidates will be haranguing their audiences over critical race theory, the great replacement theory, and the crimes and iniquities of Black Lives Matter.
The way Iowa (and its largely white, significantly evangelical population) can help set up everything else that follows becomes a warning for the other Republican candidates. If Trump triumphs in that state, there is little hope for any of the others in the race. And that would set up a repeat election campaign between now-President Biden and now-former president Trump.
To return to my earlier description of the great clean-up and rearranging that has taken place in my home, given all the unsettling events and circumstances described earlier, it is a good thing I have found (and have now placed conveniently for future reference) all our books on Chinese history and politics, Russian history and the revolution and subsequent civil war, and yet other volumes on Ukraine and the rest of the Eastern European borderlands like Ukraine.
Also, we’ve pulled together the biographies and studies about Donald Trump and his improbable rise in American politics. There are even books from university years about cult behaviour in political and social life such as Eric Hoffer’s classic, compact study, The True Believer, or Charles MacKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
I am afraid I’m going to be relying upon every one of them to explain what is happening this year. DM