Welcome to the USA: a place where bad ideas never die

Covid-19 reveals the disastrous effects of longer-term trends in American politics and culture.

Ian Hughes
17 May 2020, 10.01pm
Flickr/Occupy*Posters. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Watching from Europe, the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on the United States seems like a ‘Fall of the Soviet Union’ moment in history. The landmarks of that momentous event are etched in memory – the celebratory crowds tearing down the Berlin Wall, Boris Yeltsin’s storming of the White House in Moscow, and the democratic uprisings that reconfigured Europe from Poland to Romania.

Most of all though, the fall of the Soviet Union is remembered by many as the end of a bad idea – the idea that a one-party state can violently suppress its citizens in the name of the collective good. In practice, that idea has always translated into tyranny and the mass violation of human rights.

The ‘Fall of America’ moment we are currently witnessing - with world-leading infection and mortality rates and a disastrous lack of federal leadership - is of a different nature. It can be understood, not as the end of a bad idea, but rather as the pyrrhic victory of a whole set of bad ideas long present in U.S. culture which have grown to define the country in the last few decades.

The current primary source of bad ideas, of course, is President Trump. His ideas - that climate change is a hoax, that wind turbines cause cancer, that the coronavirus might be cured by injecting disinfectant – represent a never-ending stream of irrationality, conspiracy theory and narcissistic fantasy.

In the absence of Fox News and the ‘two sides to every argument’ approach employed by most of the mainstream media, Trump’s pathological behavior is seen as the result of a mental disorder much more clearly in Europe than in the USA. Europeans’ dismay at Trump is surpassed, however, by the fact that a sizeable proportion of the U.S. population continue to support him.

It is this fact - that Trump’s pathology is deeply embedded in much of U.S. society - that marks this moment out as a ‘Fall of the Soviet Union’ event. The pandemic has exposed the power structure behind Trumpism as one that shares his pathology, based on bad ideas that refuse to die.

Inequality is good.

Perhaps the most entrenched of these bad ideas is the idea that inequality is good. This is the foundational idea of neoliberal economics, which brought us the 2008 Financial Crisis and has produced the greatest levels of inequality since the Second World War. It has contributed to weakened democracy, frailer social welfare systems, the privatisation of public goods, and globalisation of trade in ways that have disproportionately benefited the wealthy. It valorises greed on the basis that both the winners and losers of free market capitalism deserve their lot.

Any U.S. government trying to reduce inequality therefore risks being seen as robbing the hard-working and talented of their just rewards in order to subsidise the lazy and talentless. As a consequence, America has higher concentrations of wealth, higher levels of poverty, and greater levels of violence, crime and incarceration than any other higher-income country. This bad idea has so undermined democracy that Trump is now able to dismantle it from within relatively easily.

Religious freedom trumps public good.

The American Revolution brought with it one of the best ideas in human history, namely the separation of church and state. The aim of the Founding Fathers was not to eradicate religion but to guarantee freedom of worship for all, regardless of religious affiliation (or none). The separation of church and state deprives religious zealots of the ability to use the power of government to force any particular religious dogma on the entire population.

But the idea of imposing one’s religious beliefs on others did not disappear. In fact it has become stronger with the rise of conservative evangelicals allied to the Republican Party. This is particularly troublesome because religious fundamentalism brings with it a whole raft of other bad ideas like creationism, anti-feminism, prejudice against LGBTQ communities, the idea that science is bad, and that the end of the world would be good.

Under Trump, the good idea of ensuring freedom of religious conscience has been replaced by its grotesque parody – the pathological insistence by religious fundamentalists that individual religious freedom outweighs the public good.

In the Civil War, the wrong side won.

Trumpism is reviving another bad idea that has long persisted in American culture, namely that the ‘wrong side’ won the Civil War, and that the U.S. is, and should remain, fundamentally a nation of white privilege. For a nation built on the backs of African slaves and comprised of immigrants from all over the world, such an idea is not only deeply irrational but strikes at the very viability of American society.

As James Baldwin insisted, racism is not just a bad idea; it’s a shameful idea because what racists believe and do proves their own inhumanity, not their victim’s inferiority. And yet in Trump’s America, many American’s are taking delight in openly expressing their inhumanity.

That they are empowered to do so is tragically demonstrated by the fact that a 12-year old black boy with a toy gun is met with lethal force while armed white militias threatening state Governors are lauded by the President as very good people. Taken together, the bad ideas of inequality, religious fundamentalism and racism have shredded the fabric of American society.

American exceptionalism.

Deeply etched in the American psyche is bad idea number four: American exceptionalism, the idea that the U.S. is a unique, morally-superior civilization destined to guide the world.

Unsurprisingly, in the era of Donald Trump the evidence suggests that much of the rest of the world now views this idea as a dangerous delusion. American exceptionalism underpins the Trump administration’s determination to stop the rise of China and maintain U.S. hegemony, an idea that attracts bi-partisan support. But attempting to prevent the economic development of almost one fifth of the world’s population in order to maintain superior living standards for just over four percent who are Americans is not only morally wrong, it’s also geopolitically dangerous.

In the twenty first century, the challenge for the U.S. is not to assert a right to dominance based on some mythical exceptionalism; the challenge is to forge new levels of cooperation aimed at urgently addressing common problems such as climate change and pandemics - problems that only transnational action can resolve.

The myth of redemptive violence.

The final bad idea that’s alive and well in today’s America is the myth of redemptive violence – the belief that good can triumph over evil only by means of conflict. In acting out this myth, the villain’s punishment provides catharsis while salvation is found through identification with the weapon-toting hero.

As theologian Walter Wink points out, American culture has long been steeped in the redemptive mythology of violence, all the way from Batman and Robin, the Lone Ranger and Captain America to Vietnam, Iraq and the ‘war on terror.’

Internationally, faith in redemptive violence underpins America’s costly network of nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries around the world, while the United States spends more on national defense than the next seven highest spenders combined. The myth of redemptive violence also underpins the U.S infatuation with gun ownership and its acceptance of extreme levels of gun violence. Under Trump, this dangerous myth is threatening to normalize summary justice and justify the rejection of legal constraints as necessary to vanquish America’s ‘enemies.

It is hard to look at this list of terrible ideas without seeing a nation in terminal decline. Looking on from Europe, Trumpism has revealed the U.S. as a place where such ideas never die, and his Presidency is a disaster because it is based on a coalition of people who passionately believe in them.

Rwandan author Bangambiki Habyarimana has remarked that our minds are a battle ground between good and bad ideas, and whichever side wins that battle defines who we become. So too with nations. What was true of the Soviet Union 30 years ago is true of the United States today: a nation based on bad ideas is destined for a fall.

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