“And all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”
I am following worldwide commentary about my country’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic with equal measures of frustration, fury, and embarrassment. Writers from Europe, the Arab World, Israel, and those here at home have remarked on our dysfunctional politics, the inept and chaotic response of our leadership, and our failures both to care for our own people and to provide leadership in the world. Here are a few examples of recent comments from writers who have historically been friends of America:
An excerpt from an Israeli commentator –
“The country seems like a train wreck: Its systems are failing, hospitals collapsing, patients crying for help and corpses piling up in makeshift morgues. New York, the jewel in the crown, has turned into a ghost town and valley of death: the undeclared capital of the free world cannot hide its shame…
“It could have been America’s finest hour… Rather than serving as a role model for all, Trump’s United States has turned into a bad joke.”
This from the Arab Gulf –
“During the last few months, I spent many hours…watching on television the deterioration of the situation in the United States, puzzled by the figures that reveal the crumbling economy of the richest country in the world, and the rising numbers of corona victims. This pushes one to wonder: Why is the richest, most advanced and most civilized state, which is benefiting the most from global wealth, the same one in which the number of deaths by coronavirus exceeded one-third of the deaths worldwide…?”
And critics from Europe were no less harsh: questioning President Trump’s grasp on reality; expressing consternation at his confusing and often contradictory statements; stating that the U.S. was “no longer fit to lead;” and lamenting what had become of the once “shining city on the hill.”
How did we come to this point?
In the first place, it isn’t Donald Trump or the coronavirus pandemic that fractured the American polity. Nor are they responsible for the demise of U.S. leadership in the world. We were already fractured and our leadership has long been in decline. If anything, Trump and the coronavirus have served to highlight (as well as exacerbate) both the fault lines in our dysfunctional politics and our loss of standing in the world.
It was just three decades ago that the Soviet Union collapsed leaving the U.S. as the sole superpower. Heady over this victory, some commentators prematurely envisioned the emergence of a “New World Order” and arrogantly began to plan for an “American Century.” Their gloating lasted only a decade before U.S. leadership began to unravel, largely due to the Bush Administration’s disastrous response to the terror attacks of 9/11. While most nations around the world were ready to work with the U.S. to punish the perpetrators of that horrible slaughter of innocents, the Bush Administration, guided by hubris and blind ideology, led the country into two wars that instead of projecting and insuring U.S. leadership, resulted in an America that was weaker, less respected, and more isolated than at any other time in our modern history. The wars’ costs in lives, treasure, trust, and prestige created opportunities for other nations, like China and Russia, to assert themselves both regionally and globally, opening the door to the current multi-polar world.
While President Barack Obama realized the magnitude of the problems created by his predecessor, his efforts to extricate the U.S. from Iraq and Afghanistan and to restore America’s image were hampered both by his failure to grasp the complexity of the challenges resulting from the war and the dysfunctional hyper-partisanship of our politics. I remember debating a number of leading Bush administration figures and Republican elected officials right after Obama’s “A New Beginning” Cairo speech. They were all using the same talking points, saying that Obama had betrayed America by condemning torture, demonstrated weakness by speaking against the war, and sold out Israel by opposing their settlement policy. When I was asked by the host of one of these shows whether I believed that Obama could succeed in bridging the deep divide, I responded that he stood a better chance of doing so with the Arab and Muslim Worlds than with the Republicans here at home.
Obama’s efforts to change direction in the Middle East were stymied, but he did succeed in reconstructing at least some of the architecture of global diplomacy that the Bush Administration had left in tatters. He negotiated agreements to deal with climate change, to rein in China’s growing influence in Asia, and to limit Iran’s nuclear program.
Because Republicans opposed all three, Obama left office with the edifices he had constructed on shaky ground. In the end, Obama will be remembered for having created high expectations that failed to materialize, leading to even greater concern about America’s ability to lead in the world.
The election of Donald Trump was the byproduct of our partisan dysfunction. His “populism” was fueled by xenophobia, racism, and the anger of the middle class that the Republican party had been cultivating for decades. Once in office, Trump walked away from all of the international agreements negotiated by his predecessor, turned his back on many of the U.S.’s European allies, courted a number of newly emergent right-wing leaders, and sent contradictory messages regarding America’s commitments in the world.
Ever the showman, he never stopped inciting his populist support base, taking partisan dysfunction to new levels. While his chaotic and unorthodox governing style and his contradictory statements have created confusion about his policies, Trump nevertheless has toed the Republican line on taxes, deregulation, and the appointment of conservative judges. He has also dismantled or severely weakened many government institutions and placed unqualified cronies in critical government posts.
Then came the pandemic.
Trump’s initial instinct was to claim it was just a flu and would soon pass. As the impact of the pandemic became clear, he turned to Twitter and daily press conferences to boast, mislead, and strike out at his enemies. As he has so often in his political career, he has relied on xenophobia and anger at Democrats and “elites” to deny he had ever been wrong and trumpet his leadership.
All this may help solidify his base and make them feel that he is winning against the “invisible enemy” he says we are defeating. But the numbers prove otherwise. While his base continues to be mesmerized by the “emperor’s new clothes,” the world stands aghast at the naked truth that America is not only incapable of leading the world, but also failing to protect its own people. In the past, America would lead a worldwide effort in cooperation with other countries to find a cure and to provide assistance. Instead, we have withdrawn our financial assistance to the most vulnerable and are raiding world markets to buy up protective equipment we failed to produce and stockpile. At the same time, our infection and death rates exceed every other country. Our testing rates are significantly lower than most other nations.
The world sees all of this and laments the continuing decline of the once-great superpower that won the Cold War. And they wonder whether, after decades of deepening partisan dysfunction and decline, America will be able to reclaim its leadership role.