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Death of a dream: The US may be irrevocably damaged

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Award-winning and multishortlisted novelist Steven Boykey Sidley has meandered through careers as an animator, chief technology officer for a Fortune 500 company, jazz musician, software developer, video game designer, private equity investor and hi-technology entrepreneur. He currently lives in Johannesburg with his wife and two children. Free Association is his fourth and latest novel.

For the past six months or so, the planet has been entirely undone by a virus. And now we have Donald Trump’s defeat and the legacy that will remain. It seems to me that the impact of his reign will be harder to unpack than the virus. If the virus was tectonic in impact, then I believe that what happened to the US body politic over the past four years deserves a more powerful adjective.

I have, like many of us, spent the last week obsessively jumping from channel to channel, from site to site, wading deep in the muddy weeds of the US elections and its arcane electoral system. I lived there for nearly 20 years. Every four years was a thrilling, if somewhat bewildering circus.

But, clearly, this time was different. Reams of opinions and loads of wonks have predicted everything from the collapse of US democracy to a robust return to its erstwhile pole position as the country-of-record, its word and deed carrying gravitas and some measure of integrity.

It is difficult to see where things are headed through the fog of toxins that has so poisoned that country, but I suppose there are some things that are certain.

Barring the death or retirement of the current crop of older SCOTUS justices, the US is going to see a substantive rightward shift in matters that will have profound long-term effects – the thinning out or even complete eradication of a woman’s right to choose, the growth of religious influence in matters of state and education, the retardation of expansion and protection of voters’ rights.

This is not news; these matters have been frittering away for some time, and Amy Coney Barrett will probably seal their fate. SCOTUS decisions have a far longer-lived impact than any other branch of government, but the president’s choices of Supreme Court justices fuel that impact.

So there was talk of a Democratic-controlled Senate expanding the seats on the court by four (from nine to 13) and then quickly packing the new seats with its favoured candidates. But even if the Dems pick up the final two contested Senate seats in Georgia (after a runoff), I believe that their margin is too thin for them to make such a substantial challenge to a long-held status quo.

And then there is the weighty matter of worldviews. The US used to be, in most respects, a monolith of sorts, at least in a common belief in what the promise of the founding fathers was. You know the one – “All men are created equal…”. 

But the last decade or so has seen the large swathes of the population raising their voices (sometimes in asynchronous dissonance) and proclaiming: that promise was never offered to me, and I demand consideration. Black people, LGBTQ+, women, Native-Americans, undereducated white males and others.

These demands have not been and will not be quiet nor polite. They are rife with anger, and sometimes riven with internal contestation. It is not pretty, and those who have will not willingly give up their swag to those who have not (who would?). But clearly the system doesn’t work for all, and the resultant gaps have become too wide.

And this was not a problem that Trumpism created, but his administration also didn’t care much about it (other than to pay lip service or to insult people), and neither is it likely that it will be solved by Biden. It is systemic, embedded, part of the roots of an economic system that was perhaps better suited to a different set of circumstances.

And finally, the US’s place in the world. While criticism of US policies goes back generations, it was, until recently, still that shining house on the hill for people all over the world, particularly those living under harsh dictatorships, whose first choice of dream was always the US. Trump’s slam-the-door immigration shutdown can presumably be reversed, but his odious personality and grim henchmen like William Barr and Stephen Miller have now solidified the stereotype of the ugly American worldwide. 

One can barely imagine a faster fall from grace as beacon of “opportunity for all” in the eyes of other countries than has been wrought by this administration, not to mention the disrespect shown to international treaties and allies, a betrayal which will be long remembered by everyone on whom they could once count for support.

As they say, it takes a long time to build up a reputation, but a blink of an eye to destroy one. And in politics, four years is the blink of an eye. 

Trump will be gone soon (probably leaving further havoc in his wake), but even as the echoes of Biden’s heart-swelling address faded, it seemed to me that too much had changed, too much had been lost, too much acrimony had soured the air. The problems, to my eyes, just look too large, even as those more optimistic than I proclaim, “There is nothing we can’t do if we work together.” Yes, well, I am not sure there is a “we” in the US any more.

Perhaps I react too soon, but the Biden-Harris victory only allows me a short and welcome respite, before the sad realisation that the country may never recover looms large. DM

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  • I am a South African DM Insider, US post-graduate, locked own in California but living here most months a year where our 3 kids’ families are, and an adult life interested in political affairs for my sins. This article is spot on, I commend the writer. I am not sure if the denial of loss we are now being put through by the contempt-filled “odious” trump was evident when he wrote, but his conclusion looks even more certain. trump’s cowed Party already returning to their belligerent ways and fawning to his whims. No evidence of their guilt for putting trump in charge and using him as a wrecking ball, on the contrary, backing him yet again in their loss, reflecting no appreciation of the Biden call to co-operate. Our longest friends here, a Harvard trained top health lawyer in Atlanta and well educated wife voted Trump, and 70 million others, the country has now exposed its rotten underbelly and it will not be easily hidden again. It will take great popular leadership, not evident now.