The Beginning of the End of the U. S. of A.?
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announces a “regional state purchasing consortium” to jointly procure supplies for the COVID-19 pandemic, 3 May, 2020.
Source: News12 Long Island.
Armed conservative protesters rally at the state capitol in Lansing, Michigan, 15 April, 2020. Source: Vanity Fair.
“When do you think the United States will cease to exist?”
This is the provocative question I always asked at the end of the US History survey course I taught for a decade and a half at the high-school and community- college levels before I retired from teaching and fled the US for Europe in 2017. “How many of you think that the US will last another 20 years?” Almost every hand in the classroom went up. “Another 100 years?” A few hands went down. “A 1000 years?” Of the few hands that remained propped up on desks, most of those went down when I pointed out that even the Roman Empire didn’t last that long. And then there was always the one obstreperous student who wasn’t going to put his hand down for any amount of time I would suggest, although we would both agree that the US probably wouldn’t outlast the destruction of our planet when our sun becomes a red giant in about 5 billion years.
Although as a teacher I always enjoyed playing the provocateur, there was a pedagogical point to this exercise, as it would segue into a review of the political and social forces at play in the creation and continuation of the grand political experiment that is the United States of America. Almost every other nation state on earth is formed of an ethnos—an autochthonous “people,” like the French, the Japanese, etc. The United States is unique in being a nation of immigrants (the few Native American survivors of the American genocide aside). And while every nation-state is subject to a variety of centripetal and centrifugal forces pulling and pushing on it, the apparent disadvantage of the absence of a single ethnic identification in the US has been more than made up for by our common identification as a people freed from Old World aristocratic constraints and able to re-invent ourselves as a nation founded on Enlightenment rationality.
But, even as recently as 2017, neither my students nor I could have anticipated the COVID-19 pandemic, nor the corrosive effects of three years of the Trump presidency.
The Roy-Cohn-mentored, “always attack and never say you’re sorry,” Donald Trump has consistently pursued divisiveness, no more so than in inflaming underlying centrifugal racist and xenophobic forces that have formed part of the American cultural psyche since its foundation. Abetted by a cowered Republican party, Trump’s dog-
whistle attacks on immigrants have left our nation more politically divided than at any point in time since the Civil War. “We the People” has, among the MAGA crowd come to mean “We the White Males.” The powerful, unifying, myth of America the Melting Pot, like the Wicked Witch after Dorothy threw that bucket of water on her, is itself melting.
And another powerful centripetal myth, American Exceptionalism, is crumbling under the weight of the Trump administration’s isolationist America First policies. Whereas the free world, since the outbreak of World War II, has looked to America as a beacon of hope and solace during times of crisis, Trump’s bumbling bombasticism has alienated even our staunchest allies, allowing China to begin to fill in the leadership gap. From my European perspective, it seems that most Americans are unaware of just what a laughingstock the United States has become in the eyes of the rest of the world. The Marlboro Man has terminal cancer.
Add to this the obscene display of Trump’s narcissistic mental illness in his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. His inability to provide real leadership at a time of national crisis, refusing to aid states unless they pay subservient obeisance to him, has broken a foundational feature of our system of Federalism. As never before in our history, individual states are being left to sink or swim on their own. Alexander Hamilton—the real one, not Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mirage—must be turning over in his grave.
To be sure, the pandemic and the Trump administration are catalysts and not causes of what appears to be the beginning of the breakdown of the American experiment. Even before the Trump and coronavirus scourges crashed upon American shores, centrifugal regional forces threatened national unity. The culture wars of the 1960’s never really ended, and now, exacerbated by Christian evangelicalism, the country is divided into a red center and blue coasts. And then there is the rise of Survivalist regionalism, spurred on by post-apocalypse visions of a globally warmed planet. Preppers must have particularly resonated to the map in Cuomo’s announcement of a “regional state purchasing consortium.” [The fact that the Red Sox nation would form an alliance with the Yankees speaks volumes about the breakdown in cultural norms!]
And, lest we become the Santayanian condemned, we should ask: “What’s next?”
The break-up of the United States of America will no doubt cleave along regional lines. The trans-Rocky Mountain west coast—“Hesperia”?—could well be the next to form, perhaps adding parts of “52º 40 or Fight” British Columbia. The born-again Baptist center of the country—“Anôthen”?—would seem to be a natural neo-nation state. A majority Spanish-speaking southern border region—“Neo Méjico”?—may seek a revocation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. As American Federalism fades, regional consortia will certainly rise along cultural fault lines, and America might revert to a Confederation looking something like the European Union, with all of its problems in trying to form a functioning trans-national governing unit.
But didn’t we learn—at the terrible cost of more than a half million lives—that states cannot secede from the Union? Are you suggesting—my students would ask— that we are facing Civil War II? While images of angry white men armed with automatic rifles storming state capitols does raise this grim specter, we should note that the disintegration of the USA seems to be happening from the top down, not from dissonant states trying to break away from the Union. There is nothing in the US Constitution that bans the Federal dissolution of the Union. And it may well start with Texas, whose annexation by Congress in 1845 led to both the Mexican-American War of 1848 and, ultimately, to our bloody Civil War. Given a sufficiently packed Supreme Court, a Texas de-annexation bill might well be found to be constitutional.
And of course this social and cultural unrest is not happening in a vacuum. The rise of the disinformation age is fueled by an ever increasing economic inequality. The elites are not to be trusted. Globalism—not robots—are taking our jobs away. Maybe things will change if we break up the status quo.
But, as Howard Zinn noted, the American Revolution can be seen as the replacement of an English land-owning ruling class by an American land-owning ruling class. Just so, I expect no Marxian proletariat utopia to emerge from the ashes of the disintegration of the United States of America.