America in 2024: Blind, blundering Colossus on a downward slide

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed 175 years ago, Americans always think it’s all about them. OK, he didn’t put it exactly that way. But he did say that for all the remarkable qualities of American democracy, it tended to enforce mediocrity and stupidity, and that he knew of no other country with “less independence of mind, and true freedom of discussion,” than the United States. 

At a moment of obvious domestic and international crisis — much of it invisible to most Americans, or deliberately ignored — that national narcissism or constitutional blindness, which was baked into the American project from its earliest days, is starting to feel like a terminal disease. 

Chronically online media consumers, especially on the center-left, are understandably obsessed with the torturous progress of Donald Trump’s multiple prosecutions, and with an impending presidential election between two widely disliked candidates with a cumulative age of 160, neither of whom is generally perceived as competent to hold office. Beneath all that poll-gnawing anxiety and rending of virtual garments, I suspect, lies the slow-dawning awareness that from even half a step back, and from most of the world, the current condition of the last global superpower and the self-appointed guardian of democracy looks like a cruel, baffling joke.

Last week, more than 100,000 Democratic primary voters in Michigan chose “uncommitted” over Joe Biden, largely in protest of the administration’s inability or unwillingness to contain Israel’s relentless slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza. Let’s skip over the question of whether that number was a lot or a little, and whether it represents a death-blow to Biden, a cryptic vote for Trump or a largely meaningless gesture. Odds are you already know what you think, based on your prior assumptions about the president, the Democratic Party, the state of the 2024 race and the Gaza war. 

The same likely applies to the spectacular public suicide of Aaron Bushnell, the 25-year-old U.S. Air Force serviceman who set himself on fire outside the gates of the Israeli embassy in Washington on Feb. 25. I won’t try to persuade you how to interpret that tragic event, either in moral terms or as a factor in domestic political calculus — first of all because I have no answers, but also because I believe that’s missing the point. What Bushnell and the Michigan voters told us last week, if we were paying attention, was that world opinion is moving away from America with increasing velocity, and that the American master narrative — meaning the story our country tells itself about itself — is coming unglued.

One major but largely unacknowledged factor in Trump’s appeal, I suspect, is that he embraces a nihilistic narrative of American decline every time he opens his mouth, while interjecting grandiose claims that he alone, of course, can fix it.

It’s ridiculous to claim that the U.S. hasn’t experienced this much internal discord since the Civil War — people who say that might want to read up on the labor wars of the early 20th century, the Great Depression or the social chaos of the late Vietnam era. On the global stage, the U.S. is not officially at war with anyone, anywhere, for the first time in 20-odd years — although the number of American-sponsored or America-adjacent secret wars and proxy wars is, by design, unknowable. It’s precisely this strange and unprecedented combination of ingredients — uneasy social peace alongside intractable political division and “culture war” at home; murky and unofficial non-war conflict, whether military, economic or cultural, around the world — that defines America’s current wounded-behemoth status.

Joe Biden certainly didn’t create this situation — and, to be fair, neither did Donald Trump. They’re both passengers on the roller coaster of history, pretending they can control it. In fact, a major but largely unacknowledged factor in Trump’s appeal, I suspect, is that he embraces a nihilistic narrative of American decline every time he opens his mouth, while interjecting grandiose and implausible claims that he alone, of course, can fix it. Whether Trump’s followers believe that his increasingly ludicrous utterances are literally true has never been the right question; we don’t ask that about an 11-year-old who still leaves out cookies and milk for Santa.

Biden, on the other hand, is boxed in by his potentially fatal sincerity, and by generations of hypocritical American foreign policy that in 2024 make the “rules-based order” advocated by Secretary of State Antony Blinken look like clumsy self-parody. The president’s disastrous attempt to link military aid to Ukraine with military aid to Israel — under a banner vaguely marked something-something-democracy — only served to undermine support for Ukraine’s war, which already looked to many developing nations in the Global South like a great-power conflict devoid of good guys.

There’s no real evidence that Biden suffers from cognitive decline, and I hardly need to tell Salon’s readers that Trump’s recent speeches have been confused, delusional and incoherent even by his impressive standards. Those who argue that Biden has been depicted unfairly in the media and judged unfairly by public opinion make a valid case, but it’s equally true that Biden’s administration has repeatedly been sideswiped by unexpected events and has proven incapable of controlling real-world events or enforcing its preferred narrative. 

For all the reassuring rhetoric from the Biden-Blinken team, they have screwed up nearly everything they’ve touched, and the U.S. can no longer be viewed as a reliable partner. 

Of course the president and his advisers could not have predicted the atrocious Hamas attack of Oct. 7 — but they seemed even less prepared for the intense brutality and mass murder of Israel’s scorched-earth campaign in Gaza, or for the mounting global outrage sparked by Washington’s apparently unconditional support. Whatever cautious criticism or hand-wringing may occur behind the scenes, the U.S. now stands entirely alone behind the criminal regime of Bibi Netanyahu. Losing perhaps 90 percent of world opinion and losing 100,000 voters in Michigan are corollary signals, we might say, at different orders of magnitude. Whichever polls you choose to believe on the 2024 election, it’s clear enough that younger voters, Black voters and more progressive Democrats, as well as Arab Americans and Muslims, overwhelmingly disapprove of Biden’s Israel policies. 

Fox News and other right-wing media made hay for a day or two from Biden eating ice cream as he told reporters that he believed a ceasefire in Gaza was imminent. That made for an admittedly strange visual, but the real problem wasn’t the soft-serve cone but the fact that no such ceasefire had materialized by week’s end, and none seems likely anytime soon. 

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New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, widely understood as a mouthpiece for the U.S. foreign policy establishment, announced in late January that an ambitious “Biden doctrine” would shortly emerge, aimed at bringing Saudi Arabia and Israel together against Iran and magically constructing a Palestinian state (not to be run, apparently, by any actual present-tense Palestinians). Less than a month later, Friedman chucked that wish-casting down the memory hole, having discovered in the meantime that rage against Israel and the U.S. was “bubbling up around the world,” that Netanyahu’s only plan was to occupy Gaza indefinitely and that, someday soon, the Biden administration might “start to look hapless.”

In perhaps the most extraordinary sentence of Friedman’s long career of cheerleading for the so-called Washington consensus, he suggested that “the whole Israel-Gaza operation is starting to look to more and more people like a human meat grinder whose only goal is to reduce the population so that Israel can control it more easily.” As more than one social media commentator observed, there actually is a word for that.

Another key moment last week barely touched headlines on this side of the Atlantic, but speaks volumes about how the rest of the world views America’s future. French President Emmanuel Macron abruptly went full Russia-hawk at an impromptu summit of European leaders in Paris, saying the EU might have to provide military aid to Ukraine on its own, without U.S. assistance, and refusing to rule out sending in European troops. That’s probably a bluff and almost certainly a terrible idea (like most of the things Macron says or does), and the whole thing may have been calculated to push Congress to act on Ukraine aid, to open negotiations with Russia or both. 

But the subtext was clear enough: For all the reassuring rhetoric from the Biden-Blinken team, they have screwed up nearly everything they’ve touched, and the U.S. can no longer be viewed as a reliable partner. Many well-intentioned Americans are laboring to convince themselves and their neighbors that Biden-Trump 2.0 is something more than a depressing rerun: It’s also, yet again — and for perhaps the third time — a decisive showdown between fascism and democracy. Both things may be true, and there’s no doubt that this election could have dramatic real-world consequences. But to the rest of the world, it looks more like a dismal sideshow, and the notion that it will determine the planet’s future looks like another narcissistic Yank delusion: Our blind, bumbling Colossus will continue its decline, no matter which of the old guys wins.

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from Andrew O’Hehir on politics and history


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