Letter From America: An Empire Unglued

It is an odd thing to live in the United States right now. The greatest empire in the history of the world has devolved into a twisted, macabre, grotesque caricature of itself, and the world looks on in astonishment and horror. My good, dear friend Heidi texts from Cologne, Germany about unidentified government agents snatching Black Lives Matter protesters off the streets of Portland, Oregon and forcing them, with heavy weaponry, into unmarked vans. “This is fascism, no?” she writes. I reply. “Well, yes, it is.” 

On night 52 of the Portland protests, a Wall of Moms shows up, to protect the protesters. Mothers in bicycle helmets facing off against government agents equipped for war. The agents wear camouflage, in a city, at night. The point isn't to blend in – it's to intimidate and frighten. And federal agents that normally guard the border tear gas the mothers. Mothers. That's what we've come to as a country.

But it doesn't work. Instead of scaring off protesters, protester ranks swell, as columnists around the country warn of creeping fascism. 

It gets worse.

In the midst of a global pandemic, President Trump pulls out of the World Health Organization and threatens to cut funding to the CDC, something he already did well before the pandemic struck – despite clear warnings from the outgoing Obama administration that a pandemic would almost certainly strike at some point. 

In October 2019, prestigious Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore ranked the US first among 195 countries in pandemic readiness, and number one in all six categories surveyed. Eight months later the US is number one in COVID-19 infections. Number one in deaths. And Trump, in astonishing tone-deafness, brags about the Hopkins study. With a population of 331 million, the US has 142,000 deaths. With a population of 95 million and four percent of US per capita GDP, Vietnam has zero deaths.

My good friend Peter Millard is an MD and epidemiologist. I tell him Trump could scarcely kill more people with COVID-19 if he tried. Peter agrees. 

As COVID-19 tears through the South and Southwest, cities in Georgia try to mandate face masks in public, but Georgia Governor Brian Kemp blocks the move. Atlanta, the biggest city in Georgia, mandates masks anyway, and Kemp sues the city. In an extraordinary move, Kemp personally sues Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who is isolating at home with COVID-19. In our greatest crisis since World War II, we're at war with ourselves. We're eating our own.

Kemp shouldn't even be governor. In 2018, he stole the election against the dynamic, charismatic African American Stacey Abrams, former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives. Kemp was Georgia secretary of state from 2010 to 2018 and he oversaw the closing of 1,688 polling places and the purging of 340,000 voters. Kemp “won” the election by 54,763 votes.

A secretary of state overseeing an election in which he himself was a candidate. We have become a banana republic.

On June 23, 2020, Kentucky held a primary election in which more than 95% of the state's polling places were closed. Louisville, with a population of 600,000, had one polling place. The media barely noticed. 

In a July 19 on-camera interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News, Trump refused to commit to respecting the outcome of his upcoming November 3 re-election bid.

And none of this is imagined, invented or exaggerated. I couldn't possibly make this up.

But there are signs of hope. The Portland protests show no signs of ending. Or even slowing down. In the 58 days since the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Floyd's name has become known the world over and has ignited a global fight for racial justice and equality such as the world had never seen before. 

Even corporate America is behind it. Even golf, game of the rich and the corporate. Golf tournaments on TV are now regularly interrupted by 30-second heartfelt racial justice messages delivered by black sports icons. As the messages say, there's no turning back. Though events are still playing out, history has spoken. And Trump is lining up solidly on the wrong side of this history.

As stated in a New York Times opinion piece, Trump knows only one song. It's a song of anger, resentment, bitterness, hate and division. But it's not playing. Trump's numbers are in veritable free fall and he may take Republican control of the senate with him, reducing Senate Majority leader, kingmaker, and Trump enabler Mitch McConnell to a backbench status little above that of the teenage senate pages that scurry around the chamber floor delivering messages here and there.

History suggests Trump may be heading for the biggest defeat in 231 years of US presidential elections, perhaps eclipsing incumbent Richard Nixon's 60.7% to 37.5% thrashing of George McGovern in 1972. 

The strain is showing. Trump has for decades craved public praise and adulation, and now he faces the biggest test of public approval of his life. Will he respect the November results? He is already laying the groundwork for not accepting them. He has already said the election will be fraudulent, because of mail-in ballots, something the US has used for more than 150 years, and which Trump himself uses.

But Trump may have made a key mistake. On June 1 Trump used tear gas to clear a path through a peaceful protest for the sake of an election-style photo op, holding up a bible – upside down - in front of a Washington church. This from a man who rarely goes to church. General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper went with him. Both men later said they didn't know where they were going or for what purpose. It's hard to say what's more shocking: that they – the country's highest military figures - didn't know where they were going, or that they publicly admitted they didn't know. 

But the damage was done. Trump had humiliated these career military officers before the world. 

In another extraordinary move, both men later expressed regret, for being duped and for allowing themselves to be used as campaign props. And in a point missed by American media, Black Lives Matter likely played a role in those remarkable mea culpas, as BLM has unleashed a global tsunami of reckoning.

Those public expressions of regret must have been deeply humiliating to Trump, but the man who has tweeted 200 times in one day, was silent on this abject rebuke of his rule. The rebuke was reminiscent of congressional testimony earlier in the Trump era in which a high-ranking Pentagon official assured a congressional committee the military would not let Trump get the country into an ill-advised war. It is a measure of surreal nature of these times that such unprecedented testimony barely raised an eyebrow in the US media. 

Given all this, it's hard to imagine the military would allow Trump to not abide by November's verdict. But all indications are that Trump doesn't have the requisite fortitude anyway. Trump has threatened military action against Iran, Venezuela and North Korea, but aside from the seemingly endless US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan – which he inherited - all Trump has done in three and a half years is bomb a far corner of a Syrian air force base where there were, perhaps by design, no Syrian forces. And when peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters gathered outside the White House, Trump hid in a White House basement bunker intended for use in nuclear war. Trump later claimed he was inspecting the bunker, a claim widely ridiculed in the media. 

No, Donald Trump won't refuse to leave if he loses. He doesn't have the guts.

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