How the deadly pandemic, economic distress and civil unrest has made the US a menacing force for the rest of the world.
The United States is not just one empire. It is two. Those empires are fighting each other now, and the consequences for the world could be devastating.
The Americans who survive the COVID-19 pandemic, the poverty it brings and the gun violence it seems to encourage, will likely pose a far greater risk to the rest of the world than it already does.
A country can ban Americans from entering it, but it cannot ban American nuclear weapons from falling on it. The air you and I are breathing right now is peppered with American-made carbon dioxide. The tactics and technologies of repressive police forces around the world are first marketed and sold to American police departments. Then there is the radiation in our teeth, mostly remnants of US and Soviet nuclear tests. Only the US has ever dropped a nuclear weapon in wartime.
On this day, 75 years ago, thousands of blind and burned people were still stumbling across the ruins of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, each bombed a few days before, on August 6 and August 9, each by a bomber carrying 12 Americans.
On the ground, after the flash and blast and walls of fire, the Japanese felt their skin peeling off in rags. Their children and parents turned to ashes, and their own screaming bones burned by radiation, their lungs turned to tombs for the ashes of their neighbours. Like the carbon and methane in our own lungs right now, that radiation slowly killing thousands was American-made radiation.
That kind of horror could happen again. And the chances become more likely the more the US collapses due to the pandemic, economic depression and the rise of its racist, paranoid cults.
‘’After coronavirus, America becomes much less stable, much less powerful...but for both of those reasons more dangerous,’’ is a scenario offered by Richard Kreitner, a journalist from Brooklyn, New York. His new book, Break It Up, looks at the history of secession movements in the US, new and old.
Nowadays, the US seems to be seceding from itself along urban and rural lines. Those loyalties represent the two American empires that had come to an uneasy truce after the Civil War. That truce under US President Donald Trump has been rapidly breaking down. It has been in bad shape for years.
Kreitner told TRT World that the history of the territorial expansion of the US is tied to flare-ups in secessionist sentiment. Usually, it is over disagreements on how to govern newly acquired territories. Before the Civil War, it was a question of whether slavery would be legal in the western territories and states in which white Europeans were starting to settle.
In 2020, it seems civil violence and polarisation has again come about because of disagreements over how the US should run the rest of the world. If the US were not a global hegemon, with a vast network of client states and military bases across the planet, it would not be having these internal disagreements over what to do with them.
Indeed, Trump’s political rise started with the hateful lie that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and not the US, and was a foreign imposter and also maybe a Muslim. That fantasy requires US global hegemony for anyone to even imagine. For Trump to assert the world is taking advantage of America, requires American engagement with the rest of the world in the first place. As well as that, Trump’s immigration policies, separating migrating foreigners from their children as a warning to other foreigners, are very much part of his foreign policy.
"We've made compromises"
Just like American voters in 1860 - contemplating what the West should look like , people who ultimately could not agree on an order for it - so too American voters in 2020 are now fighting over what to do with their global empire. That disagreement is what could lead to an explosive disintegration of the Union itself. Kreitner says that is an unlikely scenario in the near term, but the dissolution of the Union cannot be ruled out.
‘’I think what’s happening right now in the US is the eruption of long-repressed energies. There are problems and contradictions we haven’t sorted out. Every time they’ve burst through the surface, we’ve made compromises. Those compromises have often come at the expense of people of color. They’ve been innately unsustainable,’’ said Kreitner.
‘’We have come to the end of the road, where we decided if we are going to be a very large plantation or we are going to be a multiracial democracy. We are coming to a reckoning. We have come to the end of the road on compromise before, and it led to the deaths of 750,000 people,’’ he said, referring to the estimated death toll of the US Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865.
That was about 2 percent of the US population at the time. Another half a million more were injured. Limbless veterans lived on for decades, both believing they had fought for the right side. Those veterans agreeing to disagree, some even celebrating together in annual trips to major battlefields as a kind of reunion. Together, the armies of the Union and Confederacy merged into one global-girdling empire. Those two empires are now splitting apart. The great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren of civil war soldiers are again fighting each other on Facebook and sometimes in the streets.
The compromise reached at the end of the Civil War represented a surrender of the Confederate military, but no surrender for the culture or economy of slavery, which mutated into a kind of serfdom after the outlawing of slavery in 1865 by the 13th Amendment. The Amendment makes an exception for forced labour as terms of incarceration, a provision that prison reform advocates today say keeps modern slavery alive within the US prison population, now 2.2 million strong.
The confederate military mutated, too. It mutated into far-right mass shootings and casual racism among police officers. It mutated into police enforcement of Apartheid policies across the US. It also mutated in the US military itself. The US did not have a racially integrated army until the Korean War (1950-1953). That was 85 years after the Civil War ended.
The confederacy also lives on in the US army itself. Trump jumped at the chance last month to defend US army bases named after Confederate generals. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Miley, the top uniformed member of the military in the White House, testified before congress that the establishment of the Confederacy was treason against the Union. It happened as the US military started to ban the display of confederate symbols by its members.
Trump openly criticised that move by his own military, which wanted to do away with Confederate names for military bases. It was a brazen attempt to pander to what he thinks his most loyal supporters would want. Whether it will win him another term in office remains to be seen.
The uproar over confederate monuments represents a growing split within the ranks of US national security agencies. There is the Department of Homeland Security, which includes Customs and Border Protection who greet you at the passport counter at US airports. They have been deputised by the White House in order to defend federal buildings and monuments from anti-Trump demonstrators.
Then you have the military itself, which Trump briefly tried to activate to suppress protests, but eventually faced pushback from top brass for trying to drag the military into politics. Federal police agencies do not have a tradition of staying out of politics, and indeed the DHS and the FBI have long been responsible for keeping track of domestic subversives.
Only recently have these departments gained access to military-style equipment and weapons to use against their fellow US civilians. That is right. Police in the US are also, technically, subject to civilian law. When you see images of American police beating or killing Americans, it represents a battle between civilians, a low intensity civil war where one side has tear gas and the other fireworks.
Between them have been the Wall of Vets, a group of anti-Trump veterans who put themselves literally in between the federal agents and the protesters outside the federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon. These are all people who have sworn an oath to defend the constitution, using non-violent resistance against other people who have also promised their own oath to defend it, too.
Discharged members of the military have long participated in politics, but the active-duty military has wanted to stay out of the fray of 2020. Enlisted service members are prohibited from participating publicly in politics, but that does not mean they do not have political opinions. Some of them admire Trump and some of them hate him. They have to follow his orders, and live in the country his pathologically aggressive political style creates.
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army major who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is a member of anti-war veterans’ groups, About Face and Veterans For Peace. He works as a historian now in Lawrence, Kansas and is the author of Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War.
He has protested at Trump rallies alongside other progressive veterans. He believes the president is unfit for office and violates the constitution he swore to defend. Before retiring from the military, Sjursen used to teach history and civil rights to first-year students at the US Army academy at West Point.
Sjursen says, from what he can tell as a veteran, the active-duty military is split along three sides. There are anti-Trump, pro-Trump and the ‘’fence-sitters’’ who don’t want to express any opinion, as per a long military tradition. The political orientations inside the military correspond, predictably, with the polarised civilian population.
‘’The pro-Trump viewpoint is the plurality. It’s difficult to pin this stuff down, but there is also a racial element for sure. Soldiers of color make up 40 percent of the military. They are way more likely to be anti-Trump,’’ he said.
As for those who will not take one position or the other on Trump, ‘’they are way more likely to be in the leadership.’’
Sjursen, who hails from Staten Island, New York, says the reluctance of officers to make their opinions heard reflects their main priority as officers.
‘’Challenges to discipline is their biggest fear,’’ he told TRT World.
Trump, in keeping with his decades-long habit of starting fights for his own amusement, whether in professional wrestling or his campaign rallies, has not spared the US military. This represents a potential challenge to discipline. Suppressing racial strife is a top priority for the US armed forces, but the president is making that harder and harder.
Sjursen says that the last time the military was this divided was in the latter part of the Vietnam war, right before the US withdrawal, when the divisions back in the US over race, politics and class were intense. It was also a time when President Richard Nixon, who also trumpeted ‘’law and order’’ and the ‘’silent majority’’ as Trump does, had stoked those tensions to divide his rivals and win the White House, twice.
Trump seems to think he can model a re-election victory on Nixon’s, by claiming that his opponent Joe Biden will usher in a wave of socialism and anarchy, government overreach but also lawlessness, and the subjugation of the US by the Chinese Community Party. Trump’s America is very different from Nixon’s, and Trump continues to trail Biden. By one forecast, combining an average of approval polls, Biden has a 70 percent chance of beating Trump in November.
‘’If the Trumpsters are still the majority, it’s a shrinking majority. We are seeing rising waves of dissent among the younger combat vets and the rank and file.’’
Even if Trump loses, political divisions in the military will not end once he leaves office. Indeed, the US is looking at the most dangerous election since 1860, when Abraham Lincoln’s win was what spurred southern slave states to secede from the Union. They thought Lincoln would abolish slavery. As a response to the Civil War that the confederacy started, Lincoln ended up helping to achieve what the slaveowners feared the most--the outlawing of slavery.
The election is bound to be more complex and fraught this year because of the coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s lies that mail-in ballots will produce a fraudulent result. Achieving a peaceful transition of power in the US is not guaranteed in 2020. A prolonged dispute over the name of the real victor, as well as Trump insisting he and his team are winners, and calling on his loyalists in the police and armed supporters to bolster his wishes, could inaugurate years of violent civil strife in the US.
‘’Well, it’d be terrifying and wholly in character at once,’’ Sjursen told TRT World in an email. ‘’The U.S. isn’t only the top nuclear weapons power, but also the number one polluter and number one climate-denier in the developed (well, actually, the entire) world. In other words, the other 96% of the globe’s 7-8 billion people now - and long have - lived hostage to the insane and irrational whims of an increasingly off-the-rails America.’’
‘’If Trump refuses to hold the election, or, more likely, cries foul after he loses - and then refuses to leave / questions the validity of the results - the world might well be treated to the terrifying absurdity of the hegemonic hostage holder pointing dual pistols at his own head and theirs. And nukes to boot.’’
The election takes place on November 3.