The 2016 U.S. presidential election, more than any other event in recent history, has left the world feeling disillusioned. People of all stripes and political persuasions, in far off lands and countries bordering the U.S., went to bed early Tuesday night and stared at the ceiling or pulled the covers over their heads not knowing quite why they felt so bad.
Maybe it’s because things aren’t turning out the way our parents said they would. Hard work pays off, always do the right thing, treat people with respect, decency wins in the end, things work out for the better, good triumphs over evil. All the do-gooder clichés parents worldwide have been imparting to their children since the beginning of time were thrown into question on election night.
The country founded in 1776 as a nation refuge for the world’s oppressed, a place where no person was better than another because of birthright, colour of skin or religious beliefs, has been for centuries a shining beacon of hope in a sometimes dark world. A country founded on the best of human intentions. A place to go to get away from evil.
Of course, we all knew it wasn’t really so. After travelling the U.S. for six months, I paraphrased Charles Dickens in a previous blog, calling it the ‘best of countries and the worst of countries.’ However well-intentioned, the founding fathers had no problem with slavery and ignoring the rights of America’s indigenous people, who suffered cultural genocide in the name of Manifest Destiny.
No nation made up of human beings could live up to the ideals laid out in the American Constitution. The world’s oppressed suffered from bigotry and intolerance after arriving on U.S. shores, but in a lesser non-institutionalized form. The immigrants knew in their hearts the impossibility of legislating the dark side of human nature and that prejudices were inevitable. But in America bad intent was not officially sanctioned by a governing force. They could see others of their kind working hard and succeeding and held out hope for their piece of the American dream.
And so it went over hundreds of years, with good eventually winning over evil, industry over sloth. Slavery was abolished after a bloody civil war and the horrible mistreatment of indigenous people was reduced to levels a country blessed by God could live with. It was an imperfect Union that fell short of the founding fathers’ lofty ideals but a country that championed individual liberty and freedom above all else.
In the 20th Century, the little democracy that could, emerged from its isolationist stance to become the star of the world stage when American military might brought the First World War to an end. The nation came into its own as the world’s champion of freedom when it reluctantly joined the fight against the forces of evil in World War Two, its soldiers pictured in newsreels liberating European cities along streets crowded with adoring grateful crowds.
It was the dawning of the movie age and one-dimensional Hollywood heroes like John Wayne and Gary Cooper ingrained the image of the American good guy in the world consciousness. For children growing up around the globe, the United States stood for what their parents always told them. The cowboy in the white hat always draws faster and shoots straighter than the guy in black. Good wins over evil, every time.
For a brief while in the war’s aftermath, people felt safe in a world where the guys in white hats had nuclear weapons. Tensions ratcheted up when the Russians went over to the dark side and caught up, especially when Soviet ships laden with nuclear missile parts cruised towards Cuba and an American naval blockade. The world held its collective breath until the guys in black hats backed down. President John Kennedy came away as the free world’s greatest hero, the sheriff who stared down the gunslingers threatening the global community.
But with the sheriff dead by the country’s own hand, the world’s champion of freedom veered off course in the sixties, allowing paranoia about the spread of communism to overshadow the founding fathers’ original intent. Innocent people in a far-off land died by the tens of thousands, their blood on the hands of the guys in white hats.
With U.S. losses mounting and the nation being torn apart internally by opposition to what was clearly an unjust war, the nation’s leaders refrained from resorting to scorched earth annihilation of a far weaker foe and left the battlefield, if not defeated, then certainly chastised by world opinion with their white hats tattered and somewhat soiled. In the sense that the U.S. had shown military restraint and walked away without obliterating the enemy, it could be perceived that once gain good had triumphed over evil.
America began its next war of note on higher moral ground, ostensibly to liberate Kuwait, its weak but oil-rich Middle East ally. Most of the free world watched with pride as President George Bush Sr. told the murderous black-hatted Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein that his aggression in Kuwait ‘Would not stand.’
With overwhelming military superiority and complete control of the air, the U.S. made short work of the vaunted Iraqi army, leaving scores of enemy soldiers smouldering in charred heaps by the side of the highway as its army marched towards Baghdad. With Kuwait free and the tyrant sufficiently chastened, the guys in white hats pulled back on the military reins, keeping civilian casualties to a minimum, and brought the troops home. Good beat evil again.
Fears of a worldwide computer glitch aside, the 20th Century ended on a high note for the country that had emerged as the world’s only Super Power. Russia couldn’t keep up with its military spending and the Cold War was over, and with it the specter of nuclear annihilation. Its white hat image had mostly survived the fiasco in Vietnam and its various intrusions into the affairs of sovereign nations, including supporting despots and its hand in assassinating democratically elected leaders who weren’t deemed in keeping with U.S. interests.
Keeping the world free sometimes required putting your white hat aside and getting down and dirty with the bad guys. Reasonable people could see that.
The first unsettling rumbling that things might not go as smoothly for the world’s oldest democracy in the new Millennium came in the 2000 presidential election. Despite winning the popular vote, the Democratic candidate Al Gore lost to Republican George Bush Jr. in the closest presidential election in American history, with 537 votes separating the candidates in the decisive state of Florida, then coincidentally or not run by Bush’s brother Jeb. The result triggered an automatic recount which resulted in litigation that ultimately reached the Supreme Court, which gave the election to Bush in a 5-4 decision.
The Democrats reluctantly went along with the ruling and an orderly transition of power ensued but a shadow had been cast over the democratic process amid dark rumors that the election had been stolen.
The implications of that Supreme Court decision will be reverberating through the world for decades to come. While the dovish Gore went on to champion the environment, Bush surrounded himself in power with conservative hawks who saw foreign enemies everywhere, but especially in the Middle East where they viewed the job in Iraq had been left undone by Bush senior. When 9/11 shocked the world and shook the nation to its foundations, the hawks seized on the opportunity.
The good guys had a new villains to fight and the open-ended global War on Terrorism was officially launched with a strike against Afghanistan and the governing Taliban who harbored Osama Bin Laden. But the arch-villain of terrorism escaped and the hawks turned their attention to an old adversary, the tyrant in a black bowler hat, Saddam Hussein.
In behind the scenes scheming to justify an attack on Iraq, the line between good and evil began to blur. Weapons of mass destruction were imagined and then used as a rationalization that would take the country to war on false pretenses. This time the army wouldn’t rein up short of Baghdad but would take the whole country regardless of the cost to innocent civilians.
Unlike Vietnam, an unjust war fought on the ill-conceived premise that creeping communism would threaten the world order, the second Iraq conflict was motivated by revenge and presented an opportunity for certain American companies, one of which had close connections to Bush’s powerful Vice President Dick Cheney, to reap huge profits. It destabilized the Middle East, resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, displaced millions of people and virtually bankrupted the U.S. No one could seriously say the world was better off after this unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation.
The U.S. wore the black hat in the Iraq war and the world began to view the country differently in the new century. The election of its first black president, with his campaign slogan “Yes We Can’, burnished the image somewhat but also brought out the country’s darkness as the far-right Tea Party emerged from under the rocks to hijack the Republican Party, bringing long suppressed bigotry back into the political mainstream. The far-right movement received financial backing from shadowy citizen groups with patriotic sounding names funded by top one per cent power brokers like the billionaire Koch brothers, whose father was a founding member of the John Birch Society.
With money flowing to the top one per cent and the middle class disappearing many people see their American Dream fading. Some believe the country is undergoing a slow-moving financial coup, in which corporations are the real power fronted by political puppets who do their bidding to keep their jobs.
Enter Donald Trump the improbable billionaire born with a silver spoon in his mouth who won by claiming to be the guy who’s going to make America Great Again for the working stiffs. The man who will drain the Washington swamp. Throughout the campaign he displayed an appalling ignorance about world affairs and a temperament unsuited to be Commander-In Chief of the world’s most powerful nation. By his own words he showed himself to be a braggart and a bully, a pathological liar, a misogynist, a sexual predator, a bigot.
He is so obviously not the person our parents told us should win. Not the good guy of few words whose actions do the talking. Not a person worthy of the revered Oval Office once occupied by Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Obama. America you have let us all down. We’re pulling the blankets over our heads because the world has lost its hero nation. You gave us an evil orange clown when we needed a hero in a white Stetson hat.