Which way is the United States headed?

What we witness in the US is the consequences of three years without leadership

Shahid Javed Burki June 08, 2020

On June 1, 2020, the deepening crisis in the United States became deeper. On the evening of that day President Donald J Trump addressed the American nation from the Rose Garden in the White House. He read from a prepared script and spoke for seven minutes. While he was speaking a heavy contingent of security forces, some on horseback, were tear gassing and firing rubber bullets at a large crowd that had gathered outside the presidential estate. The crowd had been there most of the day, the seventh day after the murder of a young black man, George Floyd, in the heart of Minneapolis. The man had committed no crime and was not even resisting arrest. He was thrown to the ground and a policeman placed his knee on his throat and kept it there for nine minutes until the man died. Floyd kept saying “I can’t breathe”, but his plea had no effect on the policeman.

The murder led to protests, first in Minneapolis, and then spread over the entire country. “I can’t breathe” or just “breathe” became the slogan the protesters shouted as they roamed the streets of scores of American cities. On the evening of May 31, there was a large crowd that marched towards the White House looting and setting stores and cars on fire on the way. A curfew was imposed but was ignored. The Secret Service that protects the president took him to a secure room in the basement of the mansion just in case the large crowd broke through the defenses of the White House. On the following morning a shaken Trump decided to speak to the nation. A short walk to St John’s Episcopal Church across the Lafayette Park was also planned but not revealed. That was the reason why the security forces had used force to clear the peaceful crowd in front of the White House. Trump walked to the front of the church, held a bible in his hand, looked glum but said nothing. He was looking for a picture standing in front of the church. He then gestured some of his closest advisers — five white men and a white woman — to join him for a “photo opportunity.”

Before taking his entourage to the front of the church, he had spoken angrily, using a written text threatening to weaponise the crisis. By then protests in 140 cities had brought five deaths. An untold number of protesters and policemen had been injured. In his brief address he called the organisers of the protests “terrorists” and threatened to send the American military to states where governors could not bring the situation under control. “If a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their citizens, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” He said he had the authority to use the military for that purpose; it was given to him by a 1807 Insurrections Act passed by Congress almost two centuries ago but was seldom used.

In his weekly contribution in The New York Times, Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist, headed his June 2 column, “Trump Takes Us to the Brink”. He voiced the fear that was on the minds of most of those who cared about America’s future. “Donald Trump, far from trying to calm the nation, is pouring gasoline on the fire; he seems very close to inciting a civil war. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that America as we know it is on the brink.” It would be a mistake to keep on believing that Trump is a populist. “The core story of the US over the past four decades is that wealthy elites weaponised white racism to gain political power, which they used to pursue policies that enriched the already wealthy at workers’ expense.” Krugman thought Trump’s Rose Garden performance was “terrifying”. He also worried about the reaction of Trump and his deeply committed followers to a loss in the elections due on November 3, 2020. “After all, if Trump is encouraging violence and talking about military solutions to overwhelmingly peaceful protests, what will he and his supporters do if he looks likely to lose November’s elections?”

Former president Barack Obama issued a very different kind of message to the American citizenry, in particular the people of colour. He expressed his support for the political process and urged his followers to vote not only in the presidential elections but also in state and local races. He also expressed the hope that the current anger could lead to substantive changes in a way that past protests and police killings and systemic racism had not. In the final analysis, a riot is the “language of the unheard”, Dr Martin Luther King Jr said in 1967, commenting on the unrest in the black community. “As long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.” King was right. He himself was a victim of violence; his death on April 4, 1968, at the hands of a white supremacist resulted in black anger and more killing and destruction of property. That was more than 50 years ago.

“Stop Killing Us,” quoted The New York Times in an editorial published a day after Trump’s brief and unfortunate speech. “Three words scrawled on a sign held up by a five-year black boy at a Tampa protest against police brutality. Messages don’t get clearer than that. Yet to judge by the days of protests sweeping the country, this message still hasn’t gotten through.”

Perhaps the most important message about Trump and the direction in which he was taking the country came on June 3. On that day, retired four-star general Jim Mattis who was Donald Trump’s first secretary of defense excoriated his former boss for working to divide the country. His blunt comments represented a break from the decorum the retired officer said people who leave an administration should afford a sitting president. But he decided to defy that tradition. He wrote an angry statement and sent to the magazine, The Atlantic, which then provided it to the press. “I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled,” he wrote and then went on to hold Trump responsible for what was happening to his country. “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without leadership. We can unite without him drawing on the strengths inherent in our society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.” The retired general’s words resonated and would be consequential. He has thrown a challenge which will be heeded.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 8th, 2020.

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