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A broken United States

James K. Galbraith
November 22, 2016

As many parts of the world struggle to come to terms with a Trump presidency, the social and political cohesion within the US is crumbling, says James K. Galbraith.

Donald Trump Republican Society Patriot Dinner South Carolina USA
Image: Getty Images/R.Ellis

Donald Trump's election has already signaled the end of American moral leadership in the world. The next-day greeting from the German Chancellor set a tone that every democracy will follow, out of political necessity even if not, in all cases, conviction: "Germany and America are bound by common values - democracy and freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender sexual orientation or political views. It is based on these values," Angela Merkel said, adding that the German government would extend cooperation to the President-elect. A more elegant declaration of independence is hard to imagine.

This result was not only Trump's doing. American exceptionalism - a foundation of Hillary Clinton's campaign and a sign of just how out-of-date that campaign was - had peaked long ago, perhaps with the First Gulf War in the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush. The end of the Cold War, German reunification, the rise (and decline) of Europe, the rise of China all worked to diminish it. Lethal damage was done by the second Bush gang, and it could not have been repaired by Obama even if he had tried harder than he did. But Obama at least commanded personal respect. Trump does not, the bond is broken, the era has past, and it won't come round again.

Whether Trump will prove more or less belligerent is a different question and remains to be seen. Provocations and preemptive actions can create facts; the Iran nuclear deal is a potential flash-point. But pending events, Russia and China now emerge - not improperly - as world players with no less authority than the United States, and to the extent that their conduct merits it, they may stand to gain even more. China's early warning to the Trump team to stick with the Paris climate accords is a case in point; the world order - such as it is - has new guardians for now.

Parallel dynamics

USA Wissenschaftler James Galbraith
James K. GalbraithImage: privat

Inside the United States, a parallel dynamic unfolds more slowly. The federal government has been the pillar of American life since the 1930s and in moral terms since the civil rights era. This will now crumble away. On abortion, health care, the environment, public education and many other issues, the country will soon divide as these functions are handed back to the states. Wage gaps will deepen as minimum wages rise in certain areas but not others. Then you have Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions - the very name spells the end of federal civil rights. These issues will now devolve; for instance, the state of New York and the city of Los Angeles have already refused cooperation in any mass immigrant roundup. State governments run elections in the United States, so voting rights will follow the current political divide, deepening it and making it permanent, until the next civil rights movement comes around. If it ever does.

The legitimacy of the United States government, as a democracy, has rested on a broad acceptance of the Constitution, as amended especially following the Civil War. Yet today, every institution within that structure may be questioned. The United States Senate gives equal weight to California and to each of 21 states that together do not have California's population.The House of Representatives is apportioned to over-represent the party that controls each state legislature, with a bias toward permanent Republican control. The Electoral College weights the presidency toward smaller states, eliminating four of the five largest states from any active role in presidential campaigns. The federal courts are being placed in the hands of anti-federal right-wing extremists. Trump did not create these conditions, but he is moving very quickly to exploit them. All of this suggests a return toward a confederate model, something tried twice before in US national history and only abandoned, the second time, following a long and savage war.

Polarizing forces

USA: Anger and protests after election

The potential for conflict, today, is apparent. Protesters in New York already deny the legitimacy of Trump's election. It is common currency everywhere that the system is rigged. Fear and anger stalk the identity-communities around which the Democratic Party has organized itself: African Americans, Latinos, the LBGT community, immigrants, the women's movement. These communities, while not wealthy themselves, tend to have their greatest political weight in the richest states, on the two coasts and in Illinois. The dominant political forces there and those in the interior now view each other with contempt. So identity and geographic polarization reinforce each other.

And if the states now emerge as the loci of political power, who can say how long the concept of an American identity will endure? Citizens of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have seen just how quickly a large nation-state can fold up. Citizens of Europe are watching their Union fissure before their eyes. The United States is still quite far from this. The Constitution, reinforced by the Civil War and the New Deal, is strong glue. But will it remain so, when the reactionary elements now ascendant impose their will on the parts that fear and loathe them?

James K. Galbraith holds the Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. Chair in Government/Business Relations at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Austin, and is the author of Welcome to the Poisoned Chalice: The Destruction of Greece and the Future of Europe.