PARIS – I am just back from two polar opposite nations. One, a model democracy, is rich in resource and spirit; the other, benighted and self-obsessed, is an oligarchic quasi police state. Both share a misnomer: United States of America.
Disunited, the world’s lone superpower risks rendering Earth uninhabitable, sparking uncontained war, and ceding global leadership to authoritarian China. At least a third of Americans seem neither to know nor to care.
The president’s jihad on news coverage allows government and business to plunder in plain sight. “Tax reform” is Robin Hood in reverse, stealing from the poor to give yet more to the rich. Dumbed down public schools entrench complacence.
A handsome woman named Eva, whose neatly applied eyeliner does not mask signs of a hard life, put this in focus near Columbus Circle in New York, where a brooding high-rise is labeled in letters no one can miss: Trump International Hotel and Tower.
“Don’t talk to me about Donald Trump,” she said, in a brand-name haberdashery on Broadway. “He didn’t elect himself. Now you have to live with that.” Then she stopped herself and went back to ringing up my new shirt.
Eva did not ask me to omit her last name, but foreign correspondents soon learn when it is necessary to protect people who speak frankly. In the new America, this is too often the case.
She escaped Albania in the last days of Enver Hoxha, whose paranoiac tyranny left him with only China for an ally. In New York, she taught herself English, raised her kids, and spoke her mind without a thought to consequences.
Today, recalling the bad old days she fled, she is cautious with strangers. But when I asked about familiar people and places I had encountered while covering post-Hoxha Albania for Associated Press, her eyes moistened and she opened up.
Although she despises Trump, Eva notes that the world has lots of sociopaths with an unquenchable thirst for adulation. For her, the calamity is that after a year of lies and destructive policies, his hardcore remains, and resistance cannot coalesce.
She fears that apathy, ignorance and selfishness are pushing a noble nation backward toward the truth-twisting despotism that people elsewhere suffer and die to overturn.
I looked hard for a view that speaks for the other America. In a complex country of 320 million people, a reporter can only listen to multiple voices in different places and then zero in on those that reflect the essence.
In the end, I settled on a married couple, well-educated filmmakers who worked in the Reagan White House and now live in the wilds of Virginia. Trump is not perfect, both acknowledged, but they say he is making America great again.
Asked how, the husband replied, “He cleaned up Obama’s mess.” In a year, he said, Trump has spurred a flagging economy and boosted employment. His wife nodded, but both declined to discuss actual statistics. They agreed on a label for Hillary Clinton: crook.
The conclusion seems clear. Those who inform themselves by have-it-your-way “news” are deaf to reason. Unless a critical mass of others who separate prejudice from reality outvotes them, the damage could well be permanent.
Few Americans, I found, see how closely all societies are linked in the wider world. Trump’s America First campaign has pushed other countries toward new trading patterns. Politically, they shift their alliances and allegiances. Overall, the impact is incalculable.
Take energy independence, an Obama policy that Trump now pursues with a vengeance. Whatever its short-run economic benefits, it is not only devastating to the environment at home, but also destabilizing much of the world.
Ecological damage was already severe when new “regulators” scrapped the few safeguards Obama left in place. They targeted wilderness areas, Indian sacred sites, and fragile ecosystems. Aquifers and waterways lost vital protection.
Now lower fuel prices mean Americans burn more gas in bigger cars, pumping yet more carbon dioxide into the air. Only the United States spurns the Paris accords. At climate talks in Bonn, its tone-deaf envoy was booed for pushing “clean” coal.
Collapsed prices have crippled Venezuela and inflamed terrorism in Nigeria. Russia, hit hard, had amped up intrigues in Europe. And now, as Saudi Arabia repositions itself to diversify from oil, U.S. foreign policy abets its depredations across the Middle East.
U.S. airpower helps Saudis pound neighboring Yemen back to the Stone Age. U.N. officials say 11 million children face acute risk, starved by a month-long blockade as they face the world’s worst cholera epidemic. The civilian death toll climbs above 8,000.
A single ship was allowed to dock late in November with a month’s food for two million people, relief agencies said, but 18 million face dire need in a mountainous country more than twice the size Wyoming.
Beyond Yemen, scores of desperate millions seek refuge from war and climate chaos, for which America shares substantial blame. U.S. policy accepts only token thousands, after severe vetting. John Kelly, ex-general and designated adult in the White House, wants none at all.
Trump’s pro-Saudi stance is uniting Iran’s moderate factions with hardliners. He repudiates a hard-won accord with Western powers, China and Russia to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity. The billion-dollar U.S. airbase in Qatar is crucial to operations across the Mideast and South Asia, but the emirate is now struggling, isolated by its Gulf neighbors.
As these and other intertwined global crises worsen, amateur ideologues hamstring a State Department gutted of seasoned diplomats. My own longtime contacts are all but unanimously livid. Some quit and publish stinging comment.
As Washington turns inward, Chancellor Angela Merkel keeps a firm hand on the Atlantic Alliance and keeps Vladimir Putin at bay. Germany opposed the Iraq War that left so many homeless, yet she took in a million refugees. Now her job is in play as an extreme Germany-First faction amasses power. Without her, we are deep trouble.
In the Far East, Trump pursues his playground shoving match with another mercurial narcissist who is perfecting a nuclear warhead that threatens California. And he is still trying to wall off Mexico, ending a centuries-old symbiosis.
America’s non-stop TV news channels make scant mention of the world beyond the oceans that isolate it or growing authoritarianism at home. Instead, they focus on Trump’s distractions, braggadocio and serial insults.
Clearly, these are more than random brain farts. Trump is a gifted con man. While he captures people’s attention with outrageous sideshows, his minions pick their pockets. He is changing national policy on everything from net neutrality to plundering the oceans.
Beyond America, this sparks reaction ranging from consternation to contempt, along with laughter at what America has become. France Inter, a countrywide radio network, offers a new comedy feature: Trump’s most ridiculous tweets.
That storm over LiAngelo Ball’s shoplifting arrest in China sounded like an Andy Borowitz spoof. Trump claimed he saved the UCLA basketball player from a decade in jail; he was furious when Ball’s father did not thank him.
"It wasn't the White House, it wasn't the State Department…IT WAS ME,” Trump tweeted. He called Ball “an ungrateful fool” and, with racist overtones, “just a poor man’s version of Don King, but without the hair.”
In fact, China was unlikely to have jailed LiAngelo at all, legal experts say. In such cases, foreigners are routinely sent home to avoid a diplomatic morass. American justice today can be far harsher, and the world notices.
The British daily, Independent, featured a long piece in November on how Washington police swept up nearly 200 protesters at Trump’s inauguration and charged many of them with felonies that could mean 60 years in prison. Most were eventually set free, but a freelance photojournalist is now on trial.
The broader backdrop is harrowing. Americans are now often presumed guilty, and justice is no longer blind.
Linda Greenhouse, the redoubtable courts expert at the New York Times, now a visiting scholar at Yale, wrote an opinion piece headlined, “A Conservative Plan to Weaponize the Federal Courts,” She exposed a Republican proposal to double or triple the number of judges in the federal Courts of Appeals, thus packing them solid.
“In my reporting days, I tried periodically to get my colleagues to break the journalistic habit of identifying federal judges by the president who appointed them,” she wrote. “It was just wrong to imply…that judges who were simply doing their job as they thought best were carrying water for their political sponsors, I would argue. I never made much headway. I’m not sure I would make the same effort today. A weaponized judiciary poses real dangers to the legitimacy of the federal courts, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise.”
Before leaving America, I joined a panel at Yale on where the assault on truth is taking us. Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor who just published How Propaganda Works, gave a hair-raising analysis of how big lies and twisted truth can easily undermine democracy.
Jeff Ballou, Al Jazeera bureau chief in Washington and retiring president of the National Press Club, outlined how governments across the world use Trump’s fake-news onslaught to muzzle not only their local press but also foreign correspondents.
A chilling overview came from Timothy Snyder, whose slim book, On Tyranny, lists 20 increasingly familiar aspects of a despotic state. A democracy, he said, falls from within. If it is weak, hostile powers can help it over the edge with a small push.
So here’s a fun fact: Snyder noted that Russia spent less to meddle in U.S. elections than the cost of a single tire on a U.S. F-35 stealth fighter – somewhere in the low thousands. It helped to have a candidate who was eager for the assistance.
Reasoned analysis suggests that Trump, if not impeached or compelled to resign, will be humiliated in 2020. But that is in one America. In the other, big-lie propaganda and apathy among eligible voters could give us a different America: Trumpistan.