I have long extracted glamour out of being a citizen of both the US and the UK, supposing that double passports indicate a certain sophistication. That internationalism also seemed like a safety belt on the world’s highway, and I trusted that if one of my countries went to hell in a handbasket, I could retreat to the other one. Recent years have not been kind to that presumption. The only thing that has made Boris Johnson’s premiership look remotely palatable has been living under Donald Trump, and as Trump’s reign of horror draws to its unseemly close, I reckon with the sad fact that he has changed not only America, but also me. I am angrier, more confused, more frightened and more cynical than four years ago, and suppose that the audacity of my prior hope, like some lost ethical virginity, can never be won back.
It’s easy and dull to catalogue the president’s particular lies and transgressions. What is both harder and more important is to assess a cumulative effect that he has lacked the perspicacity to discern himself. In seeking to undermine stories in the mainstream media case by case, he convinced many Americans that truth itself was conditional. During his first week in office, his senior counsellor Kellyanne Conway talked about “alternative facts”. Americans have always been divided about troubling events, but until Trump, there was at least broad agreement about what those events were. Arguing with Trump’s supporters, one is presented with narratives that bear as much relationship to what happened as creationism does to the theory of evolution.
I never bought into Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” idea of the US; even at its finest, America remained a deeply flawed, prejudiced, unequal society built on the blood of Native Americans and slaves. But flawed, too, were all the others, and the United States offered a message of hope to beleaguered places where the oppression was worse. While the CIA was orchestrating the assassinations of fairly elected leaders deemed undesirable in the Middle East and Central America, the rhetoric of human rights rang loud across the populace and the political spectrum. We had defeated fascism and stood up to communism, Maoist or Stalinist. We sent aid to countries aligned with our commercial and strategic interests, but at least the glowing tinge of generosity sweetened our cultural imperialism. We entangled ourselves in fruitless wars for misbegotten reasons, but also stood by our allies in tough times. Wealth was unevenly distributed, but we emblematised, for a short while, unprecedented social mobility. We also briefly stood at the acme of invention: technical, medical, artistic, even social. How we were was badly lacking, but it seemed good enough to rationalise our talk about moral leadership.
Over the past year, research took me deep into the American hinterlands. In Trump country, I found that ordinary ethics – decency, honesty, generosity, love for one’s fellow human beings, tolerance – were not merely undervalued but effectively desecrated by people who thought such ideals corroded strength and that strength was what mattered. I patiently laid out the argument that abandoning basic standards in fact weakened the country, but I might as well have told the bully who tortured me when I was eight years old that I knew a philosophy within which his assertions of dominance constituted evidence of narcissistic inadequacy. That bully would have punched me in the mouth before I finished my sentence, and so, metaphorically, did the Trumpists.
America is a cruel, racist society. The Black Lives Matter protests bridled at the prejudice that occasioned the Trump presidency, the white working class’s desperate last stand to sustain their vanishing supremacist birthright; that, at least, has been the narrative in the liberal press. I don’t believe it was a last stand, any more than I think the “patriots” who invaded the US Capitol on 6 January were fringe actors whose depravity will be extirpated by arresting those whose faces can be identified from security videos. The civil war brewing in the US bears alarming similarities to the one that split the nation in 1861. Demographics are shifting, and for the first time, nonwhites and Latinx people make up the majority of Americans under the age of 16. But white people were a minority in South Africa during apartheid, and Anglo rulers were a relatively minuscule faction during the Raj: the notion that population statistics will vanquish these mobs is wishful thinking.
I always knew there was no shining city, but there’s not even much of a hill any more. One has despaired at Trump’s ineptitude, though complaining of the unskilfulness of an autocrat is like grousing about small portions of inedible food. Now, the humiliated dragon thrashes about while Biden preaches good-hearted competence. After four years of malevolence, this is a welcome shift, but it will not on its own save the riven country, its broken courts, its legislators sheltering for safety in the Capitol but refusing to wear masks or pass through metal detectors. Unleashing these last four years’ consuming hatred was pretty straightforward; containing it will require genius.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who ran for the presidency herself, told me this week that the Democratic administration has to start by building trust in a country where no one believes anything put forward by the party for which he or she did not vote. The steepest task facing this newly Democratic Congress, she added, is to make bipartisan legislation the norm again, to demonstrate that party politics can be sidelined when laws benefit the American people. Biden and Harris will have to show that the purpose of holding power is not merely to hold more power.
The word “superpower” was bandied around often when I started writing for a living, fresh out of university in 1987. When the USSR collapsed, I bought into the supposition that America was the only superpower and that that would be good for the world. I have since disavowed wanting to be a superpower and questioned whether superpowers obtain – but whatever America was, it no longer is. Barack Obama has recently said he is “not yet ready to abandon the possibility of America”. If America seems merely possible to Obama, how can it seem any better to the rest of us? Something new may eventually be built on the ruins, but no one will rebuild what used to be there.
This cynicism sits in me like a kidney stone, a pain beyond reckoning. I love America and meet good people here every day. I love my American citizenship but have initiated the process of obtaining a third passport from ancestral Romania or Poland, though neither looks appealing right now. I worry that there are no desirable passports left, that the world just barely breathes through the nauseous coating of filth that Trump has thrown over us all. The possibility of America? It has abandoned us. God save the president.