By Gwynne Dyer,
To lose one parent…may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness,” wrote Oscar Wilde in his play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ in 1895.
In somewhat the same spirit, British journalist Robert Fisk wrote last week “At some point in the next two months we are going to have to decide whether we absolve the American people if they re-elect Donald Trump.” Losing one election to Trump is unlucky; losing two in a row may be saying something about the national character.
Fisk has been Middle East correspondent of various British newspapers since 1976, so he was not on familiar ground when he wrote that about the United States in ‘The Independent’ last Friday. On the other hand, he was expressing a mostly unspoken but widespread attitude among all Europeans except the extreme right. Let me quote some more:
“Like all snobs, we’ve taken the view that Trump did not really represent American values – any more than the Arab dictators reflect the views of their people. We’ve hoped and prayed and fooled ourselves into believing this was only a temporary autocracy, a deviation, an old and reliable friend suffering from a serious but ultimately curable mental disease.
“Yet…I wonder how we are going to react to Americans if the Trump years become the Trump era…if the America we felt we could always ultimately rely on – once they’ve straightened out their little Trump misadventure – turns into the nation we can never trust?”
There is still a deep well of respect and trust for the United States in Europe. Fisk is probably right that a second Trump election victory would finally poison that well, which would be a pity. But would two terms of Trump mean the end of American democracy? Not necessarily. Not even likely.
What Trump has triggered – and somebody was bound to trigger it around now, because every political niche is always filled – is a final reckoning on the ‘race problem’, about 150 years after the American Civil War.
At the time of the Civil War (1861-65), black Americans accounted for around 12% of the total population, and four-fifths of them were slaves. Whites accounted for almost all the rest.
‘African-Americans’ still account for the same 12% share of the population today, and many of them are still victims of the same white fear, exclusion and official violence that their ancestors experienced 150 years ago. But since US immigration law changed in 1965, allowing people from the entire world to immigrate, the ‘non-Hispanic white’ share of the population has dropped to only 60%.
That share will to drop to 50% by 2044, according to forecasts based on current birth rates and immigration trends. This has triggered a huge panic among working-class white Americans, who often compete for the same jobs and used to depend on their whiteness as a competitive advantage.
Trump is a cynical populist, and he would be exploiting white fears right now even if he wasn’t really a racist. But his behaviour is finally dragging the vicious legacy of the Civil War, which ended slavery but not white privilege, out into the open.
Having been so exposed, it will probably finally be extinguished – but not necessarily in time to thwart Trump’s re-election. This is not the end of the United States, nor the advent of a new Hitler either. It is a necessary evolution of American history, for which some people living elsewhere may also pay a substantial price.