The rise and fall of the United States
Nick Bryant gives his readers a nostalgic glimpse into America’s past and a withering summary of where it is headed, starting with the hope he had as a young man visiting the LA Olympics in 1984, and ending with the despair of the Trump presidency. The BBC correspondent echoes my own views and experiences when I lived in the US for a short time in the late 1990s and in subsequent visits during the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations. Back in the 1990s, and even at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, optimism still abound. The Cold War was over and America was enjoying the peace dividend. Crime-ridden Gotham cities gave way to glimmering metropolises, budget surpluses and The Internet.
As a 21 year old, I felt the same as Bryant:
“I loved the bigness, the boldness, the brashness. Coming from a country where too many people were reconciled to their fate from too early an age, the animating force of the American Dream was not just seductive but unshackling.”
On the 1980s, Bryant writes:
“The country was in the ascendant. Not so paranoid as it was in the 1950s, not so restive as it was in the 1960s, and nowhere near as demoralised as it had been in the 1970s.”
On the 1990s:
“The final 16 years of the 20th Century was a time of American hegemony... For all the forecasts Japan would become the world's largest economy, America refused to cede its financial and commercial dominance. Instead of Sony ruling the corporate world, Silicon Valley became the new high-tech workshop of business.”
On technoloogical change:
“Bill Clinton's boast of building a bridge to the 21st Century rang true, although it was emergent tech giants such as Microsoft, Apple and Google that were the true architects and engineers. Thirty years after planting the Stars and Stripes on the Sea of Tranquillity, America not only dominated outer space but cyberspace too.”
Yet the warning signs were there; what comes up must come down:
“[The year] 2000 saw the dot-com bubble explode. In November, the disputed presidential election between George W Bush and Al Gore badly damaged the reputation of US democracy.”
Then the world changed, to coin The Economist headline after the 9/11 attacks. I first saw the swing back to reactionary politics after visiting the country shortly afterwards. Heady enthusiasm gave way to grave stoicism in the war against terror, where the president ought not to be questioned, until two wars had shown the folly of blind allegiance.
“Post-9/11 America became less welcoming and more suspicious. The Bush administration's "war on terror" - open-ended conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq - drained the country of blood and treasure.”
Following political and diplomatic shocks, then came an economic one:
“The collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, and the Great Recession that followed, arguably had a more lasting impact on the American psyche than the destruction of the Twin Towers. Just as 9/11 had undermined confidence in the country's national security, the financial collapse shattered confidence in its economic security.”
Not even Obama’s administration could clear up the mess:
“Between 2000 and 2011, the overall net wealth of US households fell. By 2014, the richest 1% of Americans had accrued more wealth than the bottom 90%.”
And technological change is no longer just exciting:
“Disruptive technologies changed the workplace and upended the labour market. Automation, more so than globalisation, was the big jobs killer during this phase. Between 1990 and 2007, machines killed off up to 670,000 US manufacturing jobs alone.”
The subsequent political fallout is equally problematic:
“The Rust Belt rebellion that propelled Trump to the White House has been described as a revolt against robots, not that his supporters viewed it that way. Encouraged by the billionaire, many blamed increased foreign competition and the influx of foreign workers.”
There is also the opioid crisis, which can be “traced back to the early 1990s with the over-prescription of powerful painkillers.“
“In the space of just three decades, then, the United States had gone from "It's morning in America again" to something much darker: "American Carnage", the most memorable phrase from Trump's inaugural address... Few countries look anymore to Trump's America as a global exemplar, the "city upon a hill" Reagan spoke of in his farewell address to the nation. Trump's determination to be an anti-president has arguably had a vandalising effect on the office of the presidency, and to civil society more broadly. There's still truth in the adage that America is always going to hell, but it never quite gets there. But how that is being tested. Presently, it feels more like a continent than a country, with shared land occupied by warring tribes.
Not a failing state but not a united states.”
I like to think that what goes around comes around, and that the good times will return once more. That can start with a truly progressive campaign to be rid of president Trump.