The greatest democracy on earth had a troubled and divisive 2015. Unarmed African-Americans were killed by police with shocking frequency, a leading presidential candidate brought racism and bigotry into the political mainstream and America’s influence abroad was further eroded by crises partly of the country’s own making.
America starts 2016 with the news that an armed white militia has taken over a government facility (it’s a building on a wild life preserve in Oregon). The group, calling themselves patriots, demand the release of imprisoned compatriots and say they will occupy the building “for years”, by force if necessary. The group delivered an ominous message explaining how their occupation of the building will make it a hub for patriots all over the country. Yet this act of borderline sedition is not surprising in the current climate of fear, division and misinformation. It looks to some as if America is rotting from the inside.
The year of Trump cast the cracks in American society in a harsh and clear light. The United States is a house divided, where right and left are separated by an impassable gulf. The right-wing media has lost all interest in truth, as the fear-mongering Fox News channel and website Breitbart prove. Conservatives and liberals live on different planets, work with different realities and can’t even run the risk of agreeing with each other for fear of grassroots backlash. When Bernie Sanders, a self-confessed socialist with radical ideas on education and tax, has a realistic shot at the Democratic nomination, it’s clear that liberals have gone further left than ever before. Hillary Clinton will attempt to stand in the centre this year, but to conservatives she is a devious, treacherous murderer, all thanks to the right-wing media machine. `The infamous conservative echo chamber is no longer hermetically sealed. Otherwise moderate voters, unconnected with fringe conservative groups, are drawn to Donald Trump’s brash rhetoric.
Sadly, race is a primary factor in American society’s divisions. Ordinary black citizens don’t feel safe in a country where police seem able to kill innocent African-Americans with impunity. When they take to the streets to protest clearly racial incidents, they’re called cop haters and criminal sympathisers by the right. Conservative pundits are happy to make the bizarre claim that racism is no longer a problem in America, or at least systematic racism of any kind is impossible, ignoring legitimate grievances and research. Conversely, roving bands of heavily armed white men are becoming a common sight in many parts of the US. Determined to defend their right to bear arms and believing the government will confiscate weapons as a prelude to a dictatorship, these militias are also a product of racial politics. Donald Trump’s call to “take our country back” rings loudly in white, working class ears. This would be less worrying if their political leaders were not also making statements that border on sedition. Republican grandees have decried the separation of church and state, told state governments to ignore the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage and even hinted at support for secession in places like Texas and Alaska, all while claiming President Obama is the biggest violator of the constitution in American history.
This year will be decisive for America’s future. In the short term, it’s more likely than not that a Democrat will win the White House, while Republicans will retain control of at least one house of congress. The Republican Party will face renewed infiltration from the extreme fringes, unless a third, ultra-conservative party coalesces around the rump of Trump’s campaign. Either outcome will increase the social problems America is facing. It’s premature to call time on the grand American experiment, but no western democracy is so viscerally divided or has such potential for internal conflict, which could become violent. We cannot afford a sick man of the western world and Americans will be the first to suffer if the rot continues.