The United States is no longer a model for other countries to envy, emulate, or admire. The pandemic, and the American government’s response to it, has laid bare a society marked by deep inequality and a state sapped of its basic capacity after decades of neoliberal reform.
As obvious as these facts appear now, it’s worth pausing to recall just how important the United States’s prior prestige was in the era before the coronavirus killed more than 180,000 Americans. The American way’s appeal exercised a centrifugal pull that was, for our empire, a key counterpart to the raw coercion exercised through wars or coups. A neocolonial empire, as Aziz Rana and Aslı Bâli write, cannot govern through direct intervention alone. And it has not: winning ideological support for American empire has been as important as the force of arms.
The American model has of course long been resented and distrusted by people everywhere struggling for freedom. What’s notable is that coronavirus has exposed not only the falseness of American virtue, but the limits of American power.
The country’s reputation took a hit with the 2008 economic crisis, but the US government still proved indispensable, alongside China, in propelling the global recovery that followed. Trump’s presidency and everything that ensued was a more spectacular embarrassment, raising questions about what sort of superpower would elevate such an absurd mediocrity to its highest office.
Yet this spring, many of Trump’s liberal detractors still clamored for a return to “normal,” placing their faith in Joe Biden, the faltering standard-bearer of an exhausted centrism, to exorcise Trump’s demons. Even as Biden moves the Democratic Party toward victory by default, the pandemic has pulled what was left of a curtain to the side.
Just as importantly, America has lost its luster for the domestic audience too. Americans’ belief in their exceptionalism is shaken. Coronavirus brought this country to its knees not only due to our system’s countless weaknesses but also because of our delusional self-assessment: despite all evidence to the contrary, many believed that this country was invincible. That fantasy has been destroyed.
The End of American Exceptionalism
The prevailing views inside the United States and out are increasingly converging: this country is a failure. A decrepit private health care system, a pathetic social safety net, and enduring racialized class inequalities, it turns out, add up to disaster.
American exceptionalism has long been in crisis. The notion that America was powerful enough to reorder the world as it saw fit was battered in Vietnam and then again as the military plunged into an ever-expanding anti-terror adventurism. And yet, as Greg Grandin writes, we have always resolved our empire’s contradictions by pushing outward yet again.
Our bipartisan obsession with guarding the nation’s borders, incarcerating internal enemies, and fighting wars against threats abroad has boomeranged with the erection of internal borders to limit interstate domestic travel. Recently, I could not legally travel to neighboring states outside of my home in tiny Rhode Island without quarantining or producing evidence of a negative COVID-19 test result. (Predictably, however, this public health measure has just amounted to more failed-state bluster: enforcement has been minimal.)
Americans are likewise barred from traveling to much of the rest of the world. “From lounging on Caribbean beaches to sightseeing in Serbia, Americans now have options when it comes to international travel,” a recent article in Travel+Leisure happily announced before listing a set of still-possible vacation destinations for desperate travelers. Any nation that can afford to is keeping us out.
Even as Trump continues to rail against the supposed migrant threat from outside, the border has taken on new meaning: now we Americans are locked inside. We pretended that keeping those bad guys out or fighting them “over there” would make us safe all while defunding and neglecting every social, health care, and economic program that might have actually kept people safe.
The notion that America was so good and righteous was always a hollow pretext: why otherwise would we lock up so many Americans in prisons, jails, and detention centers? After decades of exercising police state powers across the Southwestern borderlands, border patrol agents were recently deployed to repress protesters on the streets of Portland, Oregon. The line between who is in and who is out is continually redrawn. Big failures require a multitude of enemies.
Abroad, the decline of American legitimacy is strengthening various challengers to the liberal order, though, unfortunately, it is the nationalist right that has too often gained the most ground. At home, the crisis of American exceptionalism has turbocharged a long-running left-right polarization — but in the United States we on the left, fortunately, have benefited too, though not quickly enough.
The domestic crisis in American exceptionalism is the gap between what Americans are taught to believe and the painful reality we are experiencing. On the left, that disillusionment has won broad public support for a racial justice and anti-police protest movement that is now the largest in US history.
The move to topple old statues of bygone perpetrators of slavery and genocide is not only the result of a newly awakened mass clamor for racial justice but also a drive to question this country’s foundations. Such questioning has been common sense for many oppressed and dissenting Americans throughout history. But this year, it feels like a bell has chimed that cannot be un-rung.
On the right, however, the polarization pushes the vocal minority who support President Trump to ever more extreme defenses of the violent nostalgia that is Trumpism. How can we “Keep America Great” if Trump’s America is leading the world in COVID deaths? How can we demand that America be made “Great Again” if there are no liberals in the White House to blame for its lack of greatness?
Trump’s wild denials of the pandemic’s gravity amplify conspiracy theories that assert that the virus is a “hoax,” or assert that Bill Gates plots to use vaccines as a pretext to implant surveillance microchips in unsuspecting patients. This absurdity isn’t an accident. In fact, it is the only way for many who cling to Trumpism to reconcile ideological principle with empirical reality. For the right wing, the greater the distance between American promise and American existence, the more extreme the conspiratorial explanation must become.
Thus Pizzagate, the 2016 election-season conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and other liberal elites ran a pedophile ring out of a Washington, DC pizza shop, has evolved into QAnon, the still-spreading-like-wildfire Trump-era conspiracy theory that Trump is running a secret operation to round up liberal elite pedophiles. This is, believe it or not, a major feature of present-day American politics.
One Q true-believer is on track to win a US House seat in Georgia. Recently, Trump praised the movement as “people that love our country.” A reporter asked him to clarify whether he supported “this belief that you are secretly saving the world from this Satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals.” Trump responded: “Is that supposed to be a bad thing? … If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it.”
The failure of a right-wing remedy to cure the disease requires that the diagnosis and proposed treatment alike become ever more insane. Yet the tropes of Pizzagate aren’t random. Panics over children’s safety betray a terrible anxiety that an imagined nation of the past, barely hanging on in the embattled present, will not be reproduced into the future.
Panics over reproduction have for decades animated anti-abortion, anti-crime, and anti-immigrant politics. As the sense that America doesn’t have a future intensifies, the obsession over demonic threats to children will thrive. Climate chaos, bringing homes-destroying fires, floods, and mass forced migration, will make this dynamic unimaginably worse.
It’s hard to neatly parse the demographics of the US ideological divide, particularly across regional, racial, and religious difference. Many white middle-class and wealthy Americans are experiencing the unreality of an America where vacations, sports, and spending money on nonessential goods and services have become impossible or difficult. In a society denied substantive freedom, consumption is the practice that defines liberty. After 9/11, George W. Bush told Americans to “go shopping for their families” and even to “get down to Disney World.”
This is the American religion — including for many of the religious. The overwhelming number of white American evangelicals who constitute the hard core of Trump’s base, these soldiers for Christ and the traditional family, find in the serially divorced sexual-assault braggart a sword and shield in a decades-long culture war. He plays the role perfectly because the culture wars have been emptied of content and crystalized into pure form: grievance and spite against their liberal enemies.
This is a country where policies of whites-only suburbanization intensified long-standing social divides and replicated them in space across local metropolitan areas, where every man is an island with a kitchen island or otherwise ashamed. Coronavirus exposes the connections between everyone, obliterating spatial divides and traversing relationships of difference, exploitation, and domination.
The core idea of libertarian ideology, that individual human freedom is constrained by government regulation and thus the latter must be avoided at all costs, has been revealed to be a fraud. The problem with masks isn’t the professed infringement on individual liberty, but rather that masks constitute a bleak reminder that our failed joke of a system has condemned us to never-ending plague. Masks and social distancing rules must be rejected in order to protect a more fundamental denial: refusing to wear a mask is insisting that America is just fine, thank you!
Many rich and professional liberals, meanwhile, hate Trump — or perhaps less generously, they are embarrassed by him. They have likewise embraced Black Lives Matter in part to express their rejection of Trump, but on a narrowly ideational level, placing a sign in their yards in front of spacious homes in segregated neighborhoods.
But the polarization’s opposite left edge is decidedly more hopeful. Many working-class people pushed out of a job — particularly young workers and workers of color — are increasingly demanding a new society.
No Going Back
The government’s administration of swiftly spreading and barely checked mass pandemic death and unemployment was punctuated by the police murder of George Floyd. It clarified the core contradictions of American neoliberalism by exposing the American state as a security state that secured not protection but death.
The uprising is against a state that kills instead of caring. We have a big state for policing, prisons, border agents, and wars, but no real state at all to speak of when it comes to contact tracing and health care.
From Black Lives Matter and immigrant freedom activists to Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement, many, particularly youth, are fighting to create a newly expansive conception of the American people that might constitute a governing majority in a refounded United States. That’s what Bernie Sanders’s primary campaign offered: a more humane idea of what this country could be that would provide us with an off-ramp from the imperial-decline death-drive superhighway.
Biden, of course, offers no real exit at all. He embodies the softer liberal variant of Trump’s sepia-toned nostalgia, a false promise that we can return to an imagined American past that was never really there. Biden has now selected Kamala Harris, who entered politics as a law-and-order prosecutor, to be his running mate amid a mass protest movement against the racist criminal justice system.
It’s a naked play for representation over substance. It is a celebration of protest demands so superficial that it is tantamount to their negation. But Harris is first and foremost a political chameleon and an opportunist. The Biden administration will be determined as much by the conditions on the ground, the continued presence of organized opposition in workplaces and the streets, as by whatever tired and inchoate ideologies course through the Oval Office.
The new political consciousness is by no means neatly left-wing. The American idea has fragmented into countless pieces, many reactionary and dangerous. But conditions and popular consciousness will continue to change before the system as a whole does. And after 2020, there will be no going back to the old America. For better or for worse.