A protester carries an upside down US flag as they walk past a burning building on an empty street.

A protester carries a US flag upside down, a sign of distress, in Minneapolis last week.(AP: Julio Cortez)

Donald Trump didn’t start the fighting


The United States is a nation at war with itself: its beliefs, its ideals, its promise of liberty and justice.

The images of American streets in flames reveal the depths of dangerous fault lines of race, identity, history and politics that pit American against American.

It is a land of tribes that has shattered any pretence of civic unity.

Black Americans cannot hold onto the promise of Martin Luther King’s dream when they see black people killed or abused at the hands of police.

Cars set alight in Minneapolis

The death of George Floyd reinforces a feeling that for blacks, America has never been the land of the free.

Poor white Americans cannot believe in the pursuit of happiness, during an opioid epidemic; inter-generational unemployment and poverty.

The politics of the left and right square off against each other and the popular media picks its sides and fans the flames.

Political scientist Mark Lilla has described America as being in a “moral panic”, gripped by the politics of identity that is a “disastrous foundation for democratic politics”.

Law professor Amy Chua says political tribalism has already triggered a revolution in America.

The US, she says, is “in a perilous new situation: with nearly no one standing up for an America without identity politics: for an American identity that transcends and unites the identities of all the country’s subgroups”.

A perfect storm on two fronts

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Mask-related abuse on the rise in the US

The current protests and the recent demonstrations against the coronavirus lock down form part of a perfect storm: a country that is in a battle for its soul.

The US has been in a state of crisis for two decades. Since Osama Bin Laden orchestrated the September 11 terrorist attacks, America has been bogged down in endless war from Afghanistan to Iraq and throughout the wider Middle East.

It has lost blood and treasure. American prestige is badly damaged.

In 2008 the global financial crisis revealed the deep cracks in American society between the haves and have nots.

People lost their houses and their livelihoods; many have never recovered. They grew resentful as they saw the bankers who had fiddled the financial system get bailed out by the government.

War and economic collapse have weakened the United States, just as it faces era-defining challenges from without.

A close up shot of Donald Trump looking at Xi Jinping.
The influence of China is growing as the US is losing its own.(AP: Susan Walsh)

The rise of an authoritarian superpower, China, is challenging American dominance: on track to overtake the US as the world’s biggest economy; ramping up its military might and extending its influence via the Belt and Road Initiative a trillion dollar investment and infrastructure program that could remake the world order.

Russia has re-emerged as a global power, especially in the Middle East as American influence has waned.

Democracy across the globe has been in retreat and strongman leaders have claimed power.

At a time when democracy needs a strong America, the American National Guard is being deployed onto American streets to police its own people.

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George Floyd protesters uninjured after truck drives at crowd on Minneapolis freeway

The drift precedes Trump

More than a decade ago, journalist and political commentator Fareed Zakaria warned of the “Post-American World”: we may already be there, not that the US is still not powerful, but it is no longer decisive.

For nations like Australia that is potentially a lamentable and dangerous situation.

In their book How Democracies Die, Harvard University Professors in Government, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, say democracies die in war but also at the hands of elected leaders “who subvert the very process that brought them to power”.

They worry about Donald Trump’s attack on some of the institutions of democracy: judges and the media and fear that the United States will abandon its role as democracy promoter.

But they write this democratic drift precedes Trump: “The soft guard-rails of American democracy have been weakening for decades.”

YOUTUBEYoutube: 2012 victory speech Obarack Obama

So, what happened to the hope of Barack Obama?

In his victory speech in 2008, he said “America’s beacon still burns bright”, that its strength came from its ideals: “democracy, liberty and unyielding hope”. He promised to reclaim the American dream and “reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one”.

But Obama left behind a fractured nation: the white working class — some of whom voted for Obama in states like Wisconsin — turned away from his Democratic Party. The first black President was criticised for not saying enough about race, more black people died and the Black Lives Matter movement was started on his watch.

Internationally Obama left a world with Islamic State on the march, a nuclear-armed North Korea, Russia annexing Crimea and a stronger-than-ever China militarising the disputed islands of the South China Sea.

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Stan Grant says riots a product of a US ‘at war with itself’

The state of America

If a leader is judged by who follows, then Obama’s legacy to America and the world is Donald Trump.

Donald Trump uses the language of division to play to a hard-line political base that wants to take back their country.

Trump doesn’t exist in a vacuum, he exploited what a progressive political elite helped create: a disillusioned, alienated population that felt Washington had sold them out.

These are the people Democratic political candidate Hillary Clinton, labelled “a basket of deplorables”.

No wonder they listened when Trump said he would make America great again.

This is the state of America: divided, incendiary and often violent with a political class that either insults the people or preys on their anxiety.


Stan Grant is the vice-chancellor’s chair of Australian/Indigenous Belonging at Charles Sturt University and a journalist.