Revolt of the privileged

Revolt of the privileged

America's much deeper crisis

Bruce Golding

Friday, January 15, 2021

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The insurgency that was staged at the United States Capitol just over a week ago is but a manifestation of the deep crisis engulfing that country — perhaps its worst since the Civil War more than 150 years ago.

The militia-like attack on one of its principal institutions of government, carried out by thousands of angry people — some in tactical gear and armed with weapons, explosives, wall-climbing equipment and hostage-taking implements — is like an earthquake that has shaken the very foundations of America's political system. The extent of the damage is yet to be known.

Pervasiveness and radicalisation

That it drew people men and women from several states hundreds of miles away shows not only the level of planning, coordination, and funding that went into it, but also the strength of the emotion and resolve that inspired it.

The reported participation of some members of the armed forces and law enforcement agencies is a frightening indication of how pervasive this 'movement' has become.

It also raises the question as to whether the feeble response of the law enforcement agencies charged to protect what is supposed to be one of the nation's most secure sites was due to ineptitude or contrivance. It was public knowledge for weeks that large crowds planned to converge on the Capitol that day to oppose the certification by Congress of the presidential election results.

The utterances and behaviour of some of the participants convey the impression that many have been radicalised in a manner not dissimilar to that of al-Qaeda conscripts and based on myths as inane as the promise of 70 virgins to suicide bombers.

Further, the plans, as reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), to stage armed protests again in Washington and at all state capitols across the country in the days leading up to the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden despite the outrage at the events of January 6 — show the extent of the movement's defiance and resilience. So, too, the death threats aimed at Biden, Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Impeachment and Republican opportunity

For the second time Donald Trump has been impeached by the House of Representatives. Still, he will have left office before an impeachment trial is conducted by the Senate. We will then see whether there are sufficient Republican senators (at least 17 required) brave enough to vote with their Democratic colleagues and convict him of the single charge of inciting insurrection. If that happens, a simple majority vote is all that would then be needed to disqualify him from ever holding public office again.

Such a course of action, although it would inflame his most ardent supporters, would perhaps loosen his stranglehold on the Republican party and give its more enlightened leaders an opportunity to rescue it from Trump's grip, even though they would have to contend with whatever influence he would continue to exert.

Identity crisis

Much as Donald Trump was the undisputed provocateur and instigator-in-chief of the mayhem on January 6, we blunder and we flatter him if we see him as the cause of the crisis America is confronting. It is more than a political crisis; it is a crisis of identity.

Free societies are held together not by laws or institutions of authority, but by shared values hardly ever shared by everyone, but shared by sufficient numbers to be dominant, and recognised even if not universally accepted.

The American society was founded on the principle enunciated in its Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. This principle has struggled to validate itself through the periods of slavery and legally authorised segregation and deprivation of fundamental rights and, even since the civil rights achievements of the 1960s, has yet to overcome racism, bigotry and social exclusion.

With the emergence of the Second Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s, and the abolition of slavery, America desperately needed to increase its labour force to catch up with Britain's manufacturing dominance. It inscribed on the Statue of Liberty the words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.” Its labour force increased by more than 250 per cent in the second half of the 19th century.

Although these “wretched refuse” have contributed so much to America becoming the most powerful economy in the world, their continued and increasing presence has been a source of discomfort to many other Americans. Demographic projections show that white Americans who made up 90 per cent of the population up to 1950 will become a minority in the next 25 years. Trump amplified this concern when he ranted in 2018 about “having all these people from s***hole countries come here; we should have more people from Norway”.

Revolt of the privileged

America's identity crisis is of a peculiar kind. Social upheavals normally involve elements of the society that are victimised or marginalised. A Black Lives Matter protest would fit that bill. The combatants at Capitol Hill and the people they represent do not fall in that category. They are not short of privileges or opportunities; their rights are not systemically and repeatedly trampled on. They were comfortable in 1950, but the current demographics frighten them.

They refuse to subscribe to the notion that all men are created equal certainly not the Africans, Hispanics and Asians. The election of a black President in 2008 was a call to action. The sight of a black female vice-president who could well become president in 2024 is a source of outrage and a call to arms. The Confederate flag, a renowned symbol of white supremacy, was widely displayed among the marauders on January 6.

The depth of America's crisis can be measured by the strength of Trump's support he received over 74 million of 155 million votes in November and the mesmerising influence he has on a significant number of those voters. Few Republican leaders are prepared to mess with him. Even after the Capitol Hill event, polls have shown that over 70 per cent of Republicans still support him.

America's urgent challenges

Joe Biden will face more formidable challenges than any incoming president in recent memory. Even if he succeeds in putting the novel coronavirus to rest and rebuilds the economy, the identity crisis and the destabilisation of traditional American values will not go away. Perhaps the current instability will force America to constructively confront this crisis.

Prosecuting perpetrators of the violence, necessary though that is, will not resolve the dilemma. Dialogue in the heat of conflict is difficult, but America needs to engage that conversation openly and thoughtfully.

Its multiracial and multicultural make-up is irreversible. The critical task is to integrate that into its core values something that, for so long, had been thought to be well advanced but is now being openly challenged and proving to be resting on a slippery slope.

Extraordinary leadership is needed. So, too, a thinking and informed followership. Biden's persona and reputation may be appropriate for now, but it is significant that Trump's most ardent supporters and fiercest rebels are drawn from young people under 30 years. They are the ones who will define America's character over the next half-century. It is to that generation that the focus has to be directed.

America is in a deep crisis and its global image, authority, and influence have been severely damaged, but it has the capacity to redeem itself and overcome.

Bruce Golding served as the eighth prime minister of Jamaica from September 11, 2007 to October 23, 2011.

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