The US is in free fall — and at risk of becoming a failed state
You know that feeling when you trip on the street and instantly sense that you’re about to crash hard and there’s no way to prevent it? As gravity has its way with you, all you can do is watch yourself going down. Yeah, that feeling.
I had it the other day on my way to a Black Lives Matter demonstration when I caught my toe on a curb and pitched forward. As time slowed down, I saw not my past, but my future, pass before my eyes -- a future that would at worst include months of rehabbing a broken hip and at best a few weeks hobbling around on crutches. I was lucky. Nothing was broken and I’ll probably be off the crutches by the time you read this.
But that feeling of falling and knowing it’s too late to stop it has stayed with me. I suspect it reflects a sensation many people in the United States might be having right now, a sense that time is moving slowly while we watch a flailing country in a slow-motion free fall. It has taken decades of government dereliction to get us to this point and a few years of Trumpian sabotage to show us just where we really are. To have any hope of pulling back from the brink, however, will take the determination of organizations like the Movement for Black Lives.
That national descent, when it came, proved remarkably swift. In less than six months, we’ve seen more than 2.5 million confirmed Covid-19 infections and more than 125,000 deaths. And it’s not slowing down. June 24th, in fact, saw the biggest single-day total in new U.S. infections (more than 38,000) since April and that number may well have been superseded by the time this piece comes out. During this pandemic, we’ve gone from an economy of almost full employment -- even if at starvation levels for those earning a minimum wage -- to one with the worst unemployment since the Great Depression (even as billionaires have once again made a rather literal killing). The government’s response to these twin catastrophes has been feckless at best and criminal at worst. While this country may not yet be a failed state, it’s certainly in a free fall all its own.
What Is a Failed State?
People use this expression to indicate a political entity whose government has ceased to perform most or all of its basic functions. Such a condition can result from civil war, untrammeled corruption, natural disaster, or some combination of those and more. The Fund for Peace, which has been working on such issues for more than 70 years, lists four criteria to identify such a country:
- “Loss of control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force therein
- Erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions
- Inability to provide public services
- Inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community”
I’ve always thought of such fallen lands (sometimes given a fatal shove by my own government) as far-away places. Countries like Libya. The Fund for Peace identifies that beleaguered and now fractured nation, where rival armed forces compete for primacy, as the one in which government fragility has increased most over the last decade. The present chaos began when the United States and its NATO allies stepped in militarily, precipitating the overthrow of autocrat Muammar Qaddafi, with no particular plan for the day after.
Then there’s Yemen, where Washington’s support for the intervention of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates only exacerbated an ongoing civil war, whose civilian victims have been left to confront famine, cholera, and most recently, with a shattered healthcare system, the coronavirus. And before Libya and Yemen, don’t forget the Bush administration’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, which damaged that country’s physical and political infrastructure in ways it is now, 17 years later, starting to dig out of.
So, yes, I’d known about failed states, but it wasn’t until I read “We Are Living in a Failed State” by George Packer in the June 2020 Atlantic magazine that I began to seriously entertain the idea that my country was bouncing down the same flight of stairs. As that article’s subtitle put it: “The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken.”
The Monopoly of the Legitimate Use of Force
In his 1919 lecture “Politics as a Vocation,” German sociologist Max Weber observed that “a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” In other words, a state is a given territory whose inhabitants recognize that only one institution, the government, has the capacity -- and therefore the right -- to authorize the use of violence against members of the community.
Weber described three main ways that the use of violence acquires legitimacy: through long tradition, through the charisma of individual leaders, or in the case of many modern states, through the rule of law. In a way, Donald Trump’s administration can be viewed as one long attempt to roll back the legitimacy derived from the rule of law and replace it with the power of one man’s personal charisma. The president’s often-bumbling attempts to rule by fiat have reminded many fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation of a hapless imitation of Captain Jean-Luc Picard repeatedly calling out from the bridge of the Enterprise, “Make it so!”
Recently, however, Trump has used his presidential authority to directly threaten his own citizens with military force. On June 1st, he said at a Rose Garden press conference, “If a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” Minutes later, he showed just how it could be done, when protesters in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square were attacked by a combined force of National Guard, federal Park Police, and Secret Service agents. That last group Trump chose to congratulate for the job they did in a celebratory tweet, addressing them as the “S.S.,” an evocation -- one hopes unintentional -- of the Schutzstaffel (a Nazi paramilitary force of the previous century.) The world saw, as the Washington Post reported, “federal officers shoving protesters with shields and firing pepper balls, chemical grenades, and smoke bombs at retreating crowds” -- all so the president could have a photo op with his buddy, the Bible, in front of a church down the street from the White House.
Max Weber was hardly suggesting that, in a functional state, only the government uses force to achieve its ends. Residents would still, for instance, experience criminal violence. When a state begins to fail, however, it either can’t or won’t prevent other forces from threatening or using violence -- a growing trend in Donald Trump’s America. He has even, for instance, encouraged attendees at his rallies to “knock the crap out of” hecklers and offered to pay their legal fees afterward. We’ve watched him congratulate a Republican congressman for physically attacking a reporter and noted his approval of some “very fine people” at the 2017 Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white nationalist murdered a woman by driving his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators.
Recently, the president’s support for extralegal violence has taken a far more sinister turn. Now, he’s given his imprimatur not just to his individual supporters, but to armed militias opposing their states’ efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. He’s urged them to “LIBERATE!” places like Michigan and Virginia, approved of armed vigilantes physically menacing legislators deliberating about Michigan’s stay-at-home policies, and had no objection to their parading in front of the office of Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer with signs bearing slogans like “Tyrants get the rope!” His encouragement of armed resistance to state authority so alarmed Washington Governor Jay Inslee that he accused the president of “fomenting domestic rebellion.”
What do you call a nation in which armed militias can threaten officials without fear of penalty? Whether it’s Libya or the U.S., I’d call it a state on the way to failing.
Eroding the Legitimacy of Collective Decision Making
The United States is a republic. Those who can vote elect representatives who make the laws that govern us. That’s how federal and state constitutions, city charters, and town bylaws have set out the major process for collective decision-making in this country. (Of course, sometimes we also participate more directly, as when we speak or write about public affairs, demonstrate our concerns in marches with banners and chants, or organize ourselves as communities, workers, or other groups of people sharing common interests.)
Recognizing that this country is still officially a republic doesn’t mean that everyone legally entitled to vote is actually able to vote. I wish that were so. In many parts of this country, however, the Republicans have been working assiduously to make voting by some of us either illegal or impossible.
In my lifetime, African Americans (and some white allies) died to secure the vote, an effort that culminated in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In 2013, however, under George W. Bush-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court essentially gutted the act. Ever since, we’ve seen an acceleration of efforts to reduce access to the polls for African Americans and other marginalized groups. These include onerous voter identification procedures and restrictions on early voting or access to vote-by-mail options. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that, in the past decade, 25 states have imposed new restrictions on voting.
To the extent that Americans recognize elections as a means of collective decision-making, it’s because a sufficient number of us have confidence in the basic integrity of the system. In less functional societies, the results of elections are frequently, sometimes violently, contested by the losing side. So it’s one thing -- and bad enough -- for local jurisdictions to make it difficult or impossible for particular groups of people to vote. It’s quite another when a country’s leader acts to undermine public confidence in the entire electoral process.
That, of course, is exactly what Donald Trump has been doing from the moment of his 2016 electoral victory when he began blaming his failure to win the popular vote on millions of ballots supposedly cast illegally by undocumented immigrants. He even set up a presidential commission to investigate such a massive fraud, which later disbanded without finding any evidence to support his contention.
Nonetheless, the president revisited the theme of voter fraud in a 2019 address to young conservatives, this time throwing in a few made-up details for verisimilitude:
“...and then those illegals get out and vote, because they vote anyway. Don’t kid yourself. Those numbers in California and numerous other states, they’re rigged. They’ve got people voting that shouldn’t be voting. They vote many times, not just twice, not just three times. It’s like a circle. They come back, they put a new hat on. They come back, they put a new shirt on. And in many cases, they don’t even do that. You know what’s going on. It’s a rigged deal.”
In the context of an ongoing pandemic, the most sensible way to hold the November 2020 election is largely by mail. Oregon has held successful all-mail elections for two decades. In fact, mail-in voting turns out both to be efficient and to substantially boost participation. (Oregon's turnout was a whopping 63% in the 2018 midterm election.) Greater turnout, however, often favors Democratic candidates, which may be why Trump has launched a campaign against mail-in elections, claiming they are fraught with fraud, making his own wild claims in the process. In May, for instance, he tweeted:
“There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed.”
Only recently, he went at it again, all-cap tweeting: “RIGGED 2020 ELECTION: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!”
Undermining public confidence in electoral integrity is a vicious strategy. In a country armed to the teeth like this one, when Trump encourages his supporters to believe that only massive fraud will explain his losing the 2020 election, he’s playing a dangerous game indeed. You know that you’re in a new world when opinion writers in the mainstream media find themselves asking if Trump will actually relinquish the White House, should he lose the election. (And if he is losing and vote-by-mail slows the counting process in some states, he'll use any delay after November 3rd to create further “rigged-election” chaos.)
Inability to Provide Public Services
There’s no need to rehearse here the hideous details of the Trump administration’s abject failure to confront the spread of Covid-19 and to acknowledge the people it’s killed. Suffice it to say that a combination of disinterest and incompetence at the federal level has thrown responsibility on individual states and counties, which have found themselves in competition for life-saving equipment and have even been reduced to begging the federal government for support. As thousands were dying, corrupt procurement processes led to absurdities like the purchase of millions of miniature (and unusable) soda bottles instead of the glass tubes needed for virus testing.
As a result, by June 20, 2020, the U.S., with 4.25% of the world’s population, accounted for more than 26% of its 8.9 million verified coronavirus cases and about the same proportion of Covid-19 deaths. However, even if the administration’s response had been well-prepared and brilliantly executed, the pandemic would still have revealed this country’s longstanding inability to provide basic healthcare to large numbers of its citizens, especially in communities of color and among the poor.
As Covid-19 spreads in jails and prisons, a grim new aspect of decades of unnecessary and cruel mass incarceration has been revealed. As it ravages encampments of unhoused people, the virus continues to reveal to anyone who hadn’t already noticed the nation’s decades-long inability to house its citizens. The pandemic has also illuminated the devastation wrought by the most profound level of economic inequality since the Gilded Age -- the inevitable result of combining staggering tax cuts for the rich with the systematic dismantling of one public service after another, from public education to infrastructure maintenance to emergency food support.
The country that, until recently, had the world’s greatest economy can’t even guarantee clean drinking water for 63 million Americans. The lead-contaminated water of Flint, Michigan, is only the best-known example of this.
Recently, the Ford Foundation, with other big nonprofit funders, made an extraordinary announcement. In the face of the government’s inability to respond adequately to the present crisis, they plan to make at least a billion dollars in new grants. Foundations giving away money is, of course, nothing new. What’s different is how they plan to fund this operation: by issuing “social bonds” -- investment instruments for sale alongside U.S. Treasury bills and municipal bonds.
What does it say about a country when private foundations find themselves driven to borrow money in the bond market to provide public services that ought to come from the government?
Inability to Act as a Full Member of the International Community
Here, too, the Trump administration has pushed the United States towards failure. Though this country had, in the past, routinely acted less like a member of the international community than its hegemon, with this president there is no longer even a semblance of international cooperation on global issues. He’s withdrawn us from a previously successful treaty to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, as well as from successful Cold War treaties to control them. He’s repeatedly threatened to pull the U.S. out of NATO and placed sanctions on individuals working with the International Criminal Court investigating possible American war crimes in Afghanistan. In the midst of this global pandemic, he’s even pulling out of the World Health Organization.
Perhaps most disastrous of all, he’s reneged on our obligations under the Paris climate accord, thereby undermining humanity’s best hope of staving off an ecological catastrophe.
Under Donald Trump, in other words, the United States has demonstrated that even if it is not unable to take its place among the community of nations, it is certainly unwilling to do so.
Can Black Lives Matter Break the Fall?
My thinking about our nation’s rapid fall into failure began with my personal tumble on the way to a Black Lives Matter demonstration. In a way, that couldn’t be more fitting, because African Americans, particularly through their presence on the streets and in the media, are leading the present effort to pull this country back from the brink and toward legitimacy, more collective decision-making, the genuine provision of people’s needs, and participation in the community of nations.
The platform of the Movement for Black Lives represents an excellent place to start when it comes to preventing this country from becoming a failed state. The document itself is the result of an extended process of collective discussion and decision-making. Its goals include ending police violence and mass incarceration; investing in community needs; supporting the rights of women, LGBTQ communities, and immigrants; creating economic justice; and increasing black political power.
The Black Lives Matter movement began in response to this country’s long history of state-sanctioned violence against African Americans, whether in the form of lynching, cultural erasure, forced labor, or predatory lending. More than a century of violent, indeed murderous, policing of black and other marginalized communities has made this country’s use of state violence profoundly illegitimate. The present wave of resistance has forced the rest of the country, and the world, to look at it squarely.
If the U.S. is to break its headlong rush into failed statehood, it must begin by addressing the legitimate demands of the people this country has failed from its very inception. Through that process we might also begin to restore our nation’s collective decision-making, improve the genuine provision of public services, and make a new and better place for ourselves in the community of nations. Without it, there is no hope of doing so.
We shouldn’t fool ourselves, though. In Donald Trump’s -- or even Joe Biden’s -- United States, it’s going to be a long, hard haul. But better that than a steep fall.
Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.
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Copyright 2020 Rebecca Gordon