It’s been almost two years since we travelled to Spain with a couple of close relatives and their friends. We had a great time in Spain and I wrote then about the beauty of Spain, and the challenges we faced under who is now thankfully the (past) president. It seems so long ago, looking back at a time when people could travel and the pandemic and its analog, the insurrectionist cancerous president, were prologue…
March, 2019. We are on a trip to Spain with friends and close relatives. It’s spring in Madrid. I’m struck by the diversity, the beauty of the city and its myriad plazas, world class art museums, street fairs, and above all, its vibrancy. It’s welcoming and seemingly prosperous, comfortable, inviting.
A food and wine loving group, we are relaxing after a long day of sightseeing, sated by Spanish wines, meats, cheese, grapes, fresh tomatoes and bread. Conversation invariably turns to the state of affairs back home. The thought of a possible second term for Trump enters into the conversation with a dull, inevitable thud, sobering the laughter. Could it be possible and what would it mean? We discuss a flurry of potential ex-pat countries. Most sobering is the seriousness in which different living abroad options are weighed and considered. Living through another Trump term back home is the least preferred option, by far.
It is not hard to see why. Under this administration we have seen the avowed dismantling of domestic and international regulatory framework in all facets of government. Politicization of constitutional checks and balances. Vitriolic racist rants and shredding of civil and human rights protections against immigrant – regardless of their legal status – resulting in humanitarian crimes at our southern border and abroad. Corrupt denial of global climate change and our country’s role in its genesis and promulgation, risking humanity and our global ecology. Cringeworthy romancing of despots while shunning historic allies.
The personification of these problems threatening what has been broadly referred to as Pax Americana invariably turns to Trump. In so many ways does he embody and so ably articulate, in his inarticulate prose, the cancerous erosion of our body politic. Arguably he is not a cause so much as a symptom of a nation that refuses to acknowledge the risk to the body politic until the prognosis is too late for therapeutic intervention.
What’s most troubling, to extend the medical analogy, are the supposed experts who have taken over the mass media narrative advising a gullible and worried patient, the president and his followers. These advisors are nothing more in the end than dystopian ideologues who believe in the insane notion that we are all better off with no government oversight in many if not all spheres of our lives. For years they have preached an ignorant and cynical narrative that all government is corrupt, a distortion and manipulation of the healthy historical skepticism that Americans have always held for concentrated government in the hands of a few. Murdoch, Hannity, Limbaugh and friends preach an excoriation of the rule of law and have become acolytes of the rule of man, or at least of their man, Donald J. Trump.
And what should we make of this man who ideologically and practically cares nothing about the news he makes as long as it is about him? To travel abroad for a few days is valuable if only to be away from his news coverage. Like a leaf blower on a warm sunny spring morning, the news cycle is best when it’s turned off. But the rub of it is we can’t turn it off because Trump and his circus, this 2-stroke polluting cycle of noise, is destroying a hell of a lot more than a quiet spring morning.
Most disquieting is that American democratic institutions – designed to preserve and protect our constitutional democracy and ensure the health and prosperity of our nation and its citizens – are under attack not only by external foreign actors but by Americans, who most certainly by and large are not first generation. The foreign actors are more easily understood – they seek to undermine the authority and legitimacy of the United States globally through social media, cyberattacks and other means sowing confusion, falsehoods, and hate, and undermine our democracy by election meddling. Americans from both parties who embrace these tactics show how the cancer has grown.
The Americans who hide under the cloak of Fox and Friends patriotism while gutting environmental, educational, economic, health and safety protections in order to line their own pockets are ultimately more corrosive than the external threats facing us. By many measures, the United States is a crumbling empire and the population is ravaged by corporate greed manifested in opioid addiction fueled by failed regulatory oversight, creaking infrastructure throughout the country, a broken healthcare system, and worsening environmental conditions. These trends are not irreversible but those Americans plundering the wealth of the country to enrich their already vast takings are the greater danger to our democracy.
In a plaza in Madrid on a warm spring night, buses and cars stream by, families with children and babies in strollers, lovers, companions, and tourists like us crowd the street. On this beautiful warm Spanish evening, I cannot fully appreciate how Spain, once a global superpower, is now a democratic country that survived the end of a dynasty, civil war, and authoritarian rule, and yet seems to be in a good spot, relatively. And they’re reportedly the healthiest people in the world, to boot. Not a bad place for a former superpower to wind up.
Perhaps too the end of the American dynasty is inevitable. Idiot rulers have certainly presaged the collapse of empires. Nepotism and cronyism are a sure-fire way to destroy a meritocracy; Pruitt, Zinke, Price, DeVos, et al. (I’m losing count) certainly prove that point. Nicholas had Rasputin; Trump has Stephen Miller and friends.
The elections are coming and surely Trump’s days are numbered? But a travelling companion asks, where will all his followers go? These are people, more than one third of the American electorate I’m told – who reject, even celebrate, the attacks on our government, dispute that climate change exists, express unwavering support for the rule of their man over all others, deny the accusations and established facts, and would willingly sacrifice the very soul of our country symbolized by the Statue of Liberty – immigration. I do not know the answer to my travelling companion’s question. Perhaps demographers have a better answer than I. But I do know that the widespread level of cynicism and hatred of our body politic is a cancer that may ultimately be terminal to the American experiment.
Inexplicably I retain that most American of traits, naïve optimism. Perhaps it’s this beautiful Spanish evening, with everyone out and about in a plaza filled with conversation, laughter, wine and good companionship. Realizing that being a superpower may just be too much for the USA to handle, perhaps we should just chill and watch the whole goddam thing unfold as it should.
As REM sang so prophetically and resonates with me to this day, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine. Or not.
Postscript, January 2021. Didn’t see that coming! I mean the pandemic, denial of the presidential election results, and insurrection and all. I knew Trump and his acolytes were cancerous to the body politic; just didn’t realize what form(s) it would take. At the time I felt strongly that we were headed in a terrible direction. After Trump’s election I told family and friends with conviction that it would be a miracle if we survived his presidency. At least I got that right, while double masking on trips to the grocery store and waiting impatiently to get a coronavirus vaccination shot. Cheers.