The two biggest television events of the year so far in the United States have been the all-cable-all-streaming-live-chopper-coverage of Donald Trump’s motorcade from Mar-a-Lago to the courtroom in Manhattan where he became the first former president to be indicted. And, in Succession, the death of media mogul Logan Roy on his plane en route to the biggest deal of his life.
While that tells us a lot about what captures American eyeballs these days, an extended stay in the country reveals more of what is shaping the political landscape. It is more than what we are living through today in Australia: the challenges of a high-inflation economy and the punitive interest rates employed to cut it back; the cost-of-living pressures affecting everything from child care to old age care, and all the phases of life in between; facing up to the most important issues of racial equity since Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians became full citizens with the right to vote; the effects of war in Ukraine and navigating the power of China.
What struck me now was the drumbeat of mega-breaking news that instantly triggers a political firestorm that rages across the country every day – not principally in Washington but in the states. The states in America are more helter-skelter than ever. The states lurch one step forward and one step back. Congress is dysfunctional, so paralysed it cannot and will not act on guns, abortion and voting rights.
This further feeds the hyper-partisan divide that has ruled America since the 1990s, when radical Republican conquered Congress – a divide that sunk to new depths under Trump, and which has not receded under Joe Biden.
What has become clear is that the divided states of America have become the troubled states of America.
From late February through mid-April, there were several news bombs that left scorched political earth in their wake.
Guns. In quick succession in March, there were mass shootings at a school in Nashville Tennessee and a bank in Louisville Kentucky. In Kentucky, represented by the most powerful Republican in Congress, Senator Mitch McConnell could only say he was “devastated” but proposed no new gun legislation.
School children in Tennessee gathered at the state house, demanding action on guns so that they could be safe in their classrooms. Democratic lawmakers joined the protest on the floor of the legislative chamber. They did indeed disrupt the proceedings of the day to make the point that something must be done now on guns. The Republicans have a supermajority in the legislature. Their response was a shocker: to expel from the legislature two black lawmakers who demonstrated on the floor. They voted not to expel a third lawmaker, a white woman. The gun issue immediately metastasised into an ugly race issue.
There have been more mass shootings in America so far this year than there have been days in the year. There was another mass shooting in Alabama this week. It’s not just that there is paralysis on dealing with guns; it’s exhausted capitulation to the status quo. One of America’s foremost political scientists advised me that in a meeting in Texas last month to discuss the gun violence and what might be done, “There are well-meaning people arguing that we should not include gun control or AR-15 banning in the discussion because it is too controversial and would make us partisan. I kid you not.”
So there is no point in acting. Despite the facts that more than half of US adults, according to the Kaiser Foundation, have experienced a gun-related incident, and one in five have been personally threatened with a gun or had a family member killed by as gun, and that guns kill more children in the US than car accidents.
Abortion. On the very same day, two Federal courts in two states, Texas and Washington, issued conflicting opinions on the continued availability of an abortion pill, mifepristone, which was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration 20 years ago. Over 5 million women in America have used it. The Texas court order neutered the FDA approval of the drug that is used in over half the abortions in America. The Washington court told the FDA to keep the drug on the market. These cases are headed to the US Supreme Court, giving its anti-abortion majority of justices the opportunity to deny use of this drug to women in America – even to women who live in states where abortion is still legal.
Florida, where Trump’s principal opponent, Ron DeSantis, is governor, just enacted a ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. Tens of thousands of women from all over the south have been coming to Florida for abortion services. Not anymore.
In Wisconsin, a key swing state, there was a March election to fill a crucial vacant seat on the state’s supreme court. A liberal Democratic woman judge won, giving the progressives on the court a majority. She stood for abortion rights. Her campaign cost $US40 million – $40 million for one seat on one state’s court! On the same election day, a vacancy in the Wisconsin Senate was filled by a Republican, giving that party a supermajority in that chamber – enough votes, in other words, to impeach the new Supreme Court judge if her rulings on abortion and other issues are too extreme for the conservatives.
Quality of Life. It’s not just that the economy is so difficult for working and poorer Americans. It’s that the quality of life in America is declining.
Go to any major city, anywhere in the country, and you see tent cities of the homeless. Homelessness is up 25% since 2017.
Life expectancy in the US is declining, from 79 years in 2019 to 76 in 2021 – something we last saw in a G20 economy on a major scale in Russia in the 1990s. (When Americans saw that, they knew for sure they had won the Cold War.) A newborn in Beijing has seven years more life expectancy than a newborn in Washington DC. Today in the US, this is driven by Covid, gun violence and drug overdoses.
In March, the FDA approved over-the-counter sales of a nasal spray, Narcan, which restores normal breathing in opioid overdoses. Why? More than 100,000 American died of opioid and fentanyl use in 2021. A medical expert said, “Yes, everyone should have naxalone in their homes or medicine cabinets. And those who are around people at high risk for overdose should carry it in their pockets and purses.” Axios reports that in Denver drug stores are placing rolls of aluminium foil in locked cabinets “to stop people from stealing pieces of it to smoke fentanyl inside their stores.”
Culture wars. A school district in Virginia ordered 14 titles removed from its library, including books by Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize in 1993. Lawmakers in Texas have introduced bills to ban gender-affirming care for youths, prohibit discussion of trans issues in public schools, censure legal officials who refuse to prosecute parents who support care for their trans children, and block localities from passing laws promoting equality of transgender people. Kansas lawmakers overrode the Democratic governor’s veto to ban transgender women and girls from sports teams. North Dakota Republicans banned drag shows.
In Australia, the Liberals are experiencing – by being repeatedly beaten in elections – the limits of pushing culture war buttons. In America, the Republicans, even when they lose the presidency and cannot win full control of Congress, still cannot push them fast enough.
Looming over all of this is the renewed rise of the former president. His supporters decry the witch hunt and his persecution – indeed the Crucifixion of the Trump. To Trump supporters, with the indictment in New York, and others that may well follow in the coming weeks, the exceptionalism of America’s democracy is vanishing. Former American presidents, they say, now are no different than the former leaders of Israel, France, Brazil, South Korea and Italy who have been successfully prosecuted for their crimes.
The corrosion of America’s democracy is not from making Trump accountable under the rule of law. No, the more profound threat is from Trump and the Republican Party and its contempt for the rule of law.
Judge Michael Luttig, one of the most respected conservative jurists in the country, who testified last year in Congress on the mortal threat to the Republic that occurred on January 6, said this in March:
“With the former president’s and his Republican Party’s …promise that the 2024 election will not be “stolen” from them again as they maintain it was in 2020, America’s Democracy and the Rule of Law are in constitutional peril — still. And there is no end to the threat in sight…. We are a house divided and our poisonous politics is fast eating away at the fabric of our society…. The Republican Party has made its decision that the war against America’s Democracy and the Rule of Law it instigated on January 6 will go on, prosecuted to its catastrophic end.”
When you spend some time in America these days, you see it, and feel it. The troubled states of America, indeed.