The US’s entire history seems to be on the line when President Donald Trump faces the voters again on November 3. It has been 160 years since the country tried to deal with its “original sin” of African slavery. On that occasion, President Abraham Lincoln famously warned that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Yet, under Trump, all of the US’s divisions have been widened.
It comes as no surprise that the rich have got richer under Trump, given that he tends to judge overall economic performance on the basis of the stock market, where the richest 10% of Americans own 92% of shares. While equity prices have continued to reach new heights, so, too, have US underemployment and joblessness. About 30 million US residents live in households without enough food, and most of those in the bottom half of the income distribution are living paycheque to paycheque. In a country riven with deepening inequalities, Trump’s Republicans have not only cut taxes for billionaires and corporations, but also implemented policies that will lead to higher tax rates for the majority of those in the middle.
As Martin Luther King Jr pointed out more than a half-century ago, racial and economic injustice are inseparable issues in the US. I was there for the March on Washington 57 years ago, when King delivered his heart-rending I Have a Dream speech, and we sang, “We shall overcome some day.” As a naive 20-year-old, I could not conceive that some day would lie so far off, that, after a short period of progress, the pursuit of racial and economic justice would stall.
Yet, it has now been more than 50 years since the Kerner Commission’s report on the 1967 race riots, and racial disparities remain little reduced. The report’s ultimate conclusion is still relevant: “Our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” Perhaps under a Joe Biden presidency, the country could finally embark on a new path.
In the meantime, the Covid-19 pandemic will continue to expose and exacerbate existing inequities. Far from being an “equal opportunity” pathogen, the coronavirus poses the greatest threat to those who are already in poor health, of which there are many in a country that still does not recognise access to healthcare as a basic right. In fact, the number of uninsured Americans has increased by millions under Trump’s watch, after falling dramatically under President Barack Obama; and even before the pandemic, average life expectancy under Trump had fallen below its level in the mid-2010s.
One cannot have a healthy economy without a healthy workforce, and it should go without saying that a country whose people’s health is waning has far to go before it can be “great”. As I wrote in January, Trump’s economic record was unimpressive even before the pandemic – and predictably so. Rather than reducing the US trade deficit, Trump’s ill-advised trade war has increased it by more than 12% in just three years. During the same period, fewer jobs were created than in the last three years of the Obama administration. Moreover, growth was anaemic and showing signs of fading after the sugar high induced by the 2017 tax cut stimulus, which did not lead to more investment, but did drive the federal budget deficit above the $1-trillion threshold.
Trump’s reckless governance, abetted by congressional Republicans, left the country unprepared to respond to the next crisis, which turned out to be just around the corner. When Republicans’ billionaire donors and corporate allies looked for hand-outs in 2017, there was plenty of money available. But now that households, small businesses and essential public services desperately need assistance, Republicans are claiming that the cupboard is bare.
Insofar as the fight against the pandemic is akin to a wartime mobilisation, the US has been stuck with a commander who looks out only for himself, while endangering everyone else by rejecting science and expertise. It is no wonder that the US ranks among the worst-performing countries in terms of controlling the disease and managing the economic fallout. Americans are now dying at three times the monthly rate as in World War 2.
Early on in the Trump presidency, the author Michael Lewis warned that Trump and his cronies’ war on the “administrative state” would leave the US wholly unprepared for future shocks. The country is now reeling from a (foreseeable) pandemic, and remains wholly at the mercy of a looming climate crisis, socioeconomic crises, and crises of democracy and racial justice, not to mention emerging divides between urban and rural, coastal and interior, young and old.
Trump has targeted two of the key ingredients of national greatness: social solidarity and public trust. Countries with these features have controlled the pandemic and its economic fallout far better. How can a country that trails the rest of the world in these respects lay any claim to national greatness?
The US’s best hope now lies with Biden, whose greatest strength is his potential to reunify a divided populace. Although the country’s rifts have grown too large to be healed overnight, there is some truth in the cliché that “time heals all wounds”.
But healing won’t happen on its own. It will be up to Americans to embrace a project of national renewal. Fortunately, a large population of young people is eager to rise to the challenge. The US can become great again only if it harnesses their enthusiasm, stands together and applies itself anew to its long-standing principles and aspirations. BM/DM
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.