America Was Built to Fail

And it has, repeatedly, only to be revolutionized and rebuilt. What kind of country will we create now?

A fallen statue of Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia. Photo: Parker Michels-Boyce/AFP/Getty Images

Institutions, like individuals, never change because they realize they ought to; they only ever change because they’re forced to, by crisis, catastrophe. No one goes to their first AA meeting because they recognize that they have a drinking problem and it’s going to get out of hand unless they do something about it; they get fired, or their wife leaves them, or a judge orders them into rehab. Societies have even more inertia than people; individuals always recognize the need for reform long before their ostensible leaders do, which enables them to watch in well-informed horror as their nation slides inexorably toward disaster, like surgery patients paralyzed, but not rendered unconscious, by anesthetic.

Our country has been in denial for decades now, like a guy I once saw after a motorcycle accident, dragging one nearly severed leg behind him, punching an EMT who was trying to help, insisting he was fine. The only national problems I can think of that’ve gotten solved in my adult lifetime are the banning of CFCs and — as of this week — discrimination against homosexuals. (The ACA was an effort to address our unconscionable health care system, stunted in utero by the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.) Decades-long, trillion-dollar quagmires that killed hundreds of thousands of people for nothing didn’t dissuade us from foreign wars of occupation; the destruction of a major American city didn’t get us to take climate change seriously; the massacre of a school full of children didn’t move us to reform our gun laws. The grotesque shock of Donald Trump’s election has caused the DNC, after three years’ soul-searching, to nominate another centrist hawkish Wall Street–backed candidate exactly like the one who lost last time, evidently calculating that their only mistake was in running a woman. I’ve been waiting, with growing apprehension, for the disaster that would finally force our country to undertake some tragically belated changes — and the more disasters we’ve successfully ignored, the more unimaginably ghastly I feared that one that finally broke through our denial would need to be.

Writing about the present political moment is a little like trying to paint a landscape during an earthquake.

Now, here it is — not one crisis but a cascading sequence of them: widespread protests and sporadic riots on top of an economic depression on top of a pandemic, an historic clusterfuck that’s exposed every fault line in our fractured, brittle country — the fragility of our government, our economy, our whole social contract. All exacerbated by the sense that no one is in charge — certainly not the frightened, incompetent con man tweeting threats from his bunker, phoning his despot mentor for advice, posing for photo-ops against a backdrop of tear gas holding up a Bible like an auction paddle, able to offer only pantomime in the face of the first crisis he didn’t generate himself.

Writing about the present political moment is a little like trying to paint a landscape during an earthquake. For a panicky, miraculous moment, all the rules seemed to be out the window. It turns out there are no capitalists in foxholes: Republicans were handing out free money to poor people, while shoveling literal trillions more of it to their corporate donors and themselves. “Law and order” Democrats scrambled to react to a new political calculus wherein police were no longer sacrosanct but pariahs. It was not without its petty satisfactions: Fortune 500 companies were exposed as fiscally responsible as crackheads, aggressively panhandling taxpayers for handouts; cruise lines were told to go beg the Bahamas or Panama for safe harbor and bailouts; both airlines and the police were given a glimpse of the venomous personal loathing they’ve earned from the people they purport to serve. Nurses, truckers, and checkout clerks were recognized as pillars of civilization, and athletes and celebrities exposed as frivolous show ponies and lapdogs we’d gladly eat in a siege. It became obvious, in retrospect, that universal health care would’ve been to everyone’s benefit, that we could’ve used some sort of social safety net, and that the world’s largest economy was a scam that collapses after a few days’ inactivity. Suddenly even sheltered white people in suburbs and small towns seemed to notice, just a few centuries late, that institutional racism was still a thing, and that our alleged protectors have become something more like a hostile army of occupation.

The obvious question is whether, after the present crises end, as they eventually will, we’ll retain any of those lessons, or instead try to pretend none of this ever happened. “There will be enormous pressure to forget this spring and go back to the old ways of experiencing life,” science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson wrote in the New Yorker. The current administration is determined to return to “normal” — meaning poor people making money for rich people — as quickly as possible, over heaps of its less necessary citizens’ corpses if necessary. If we won’t return to it voluntarily, the president has threatened to deploy the military to enforce the old normal. The Democratic Party, with its own doddering, atavistic candidate, is implicitly promising a return to the pre-Trump “normal,” evidently forgetting that it was a collective rejection of that corrupt, dysfunctional status quo that got Trump elected in the first place.

But quite a lot of people seem to have decided that they have no interest in returning to “normal.” Will people who’ve realized their commutes have never been necessary go back to wasting the equivalent of 20 days a year sweating in rush-hour traffic, listening to Morning Guys? Will the credulous, elderly viewers of Fox news, fed on a diet of imaginary fear for 20 years, forget that their trusted news source dismissed the first thing that posed a real mortal threat to them as a hoax? Now that we’ve all watched the cops slowly choke a man to death and crack an old man’s head on the pavement and fire on reporters and pregnant women and people standing on their own doorsteps, will anyone ever again buy that they’re on our side? Will we all remember that our government was in fact able to get off its shriveled, flaccid ass and enact vast, radical legislation within days — that all these decades of gridlock were a choice? Normal sucked.

Not to diffuse or deflect the intent of the protests, but this widespread unrest is about more than recent police violence; it’s a reaction to decades — centuries, actually — of black people being bludgeoned, smothered, gunned down and buried, and no one ever answering for it. To the slow conversion of our country into a prison state, and the police into its abusive guards. And to the thousand injustices and humiliations of the Trump administration, the insult of this smirking bigot in the White House. It’s a response to the tension and stresses of months of isolation and low-level, ongoing trauma, and the frustration of watching our government ignore and bungle a crisis at the cost of a hundred thousand citizens’ lives. Everyone knows — regardless whom they blame for it — that life has been getting harder and more expensive for everyone but the very rich for a generation, and that our government is now responsive only to its donors. Despite our supposed polarization, there is in fact a broad consensus across the ideological spectrum, which is: This shit is not working anymore.

Revolution always seems far fetched until suddenly it’s happening, much sooner than anyone thought, because that’s when it always happens.

Last month, I published a piece speculating that we might be living through the chapter in future history textbooks called “2008–2020: Eve of Revolt.” It seemed hyperbolic at the time, a long-shot speculation; one week later, it looked more like conventional wisdom. But revolution always seems far fetched until suddenly it’s happening, much sooner than anyone thought, because that’s when it always happens. And they often start over some incident that seems no different than the 10,000 previous incidents — sometimes it’s an atrocity, but sometimes it’s just an insult, an inconvenience. The Arab Spring began when a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire after his goods were confiscated, but Venezuela’s revolution started over a hike in metro fares. One reason revolutions don’t happen, despite long-persisting inequities and injustices, is that no one has time. Everyone sees what’s wrong but they’re busy, they’re tired; they have work, school, kids, they gotta pay the bills, and in their downtime they just want to watch The Office or drink a couple of happy hour margaritas. It’s one reason we have so little vacation time or sick leave, maternity or paternity leave in this country, and everyone’s always a couple weeks from the streets; you gotta keep people busy, frantic, distracted, exhausted. For the last three months, Americans have had time: time to watch, to think, and, finally, to act.

I notice the guillotine has been making a semiotic comeback, proliferating in memes online, and a couple of working models have even been erected at demonstrations. (Senator Richard Burr — who, apprised of the potential seriousness of the pandemic, reassured his constituents it was no biggie, issued an urgent warning to his campaign donors, and sold off a shitload of stock — was fortunate that the news of his venality and treason went public while people were quarantined indoors.) A riot isn’t a revolution; it’s a form of ritualized aggression, like elks clacking horns or birds fearsomely puffing themselves up so they don’t actually have to hurt each other. A gesture showing what we’re capable of. If smashing some plate glass windows brings about some real systemic reforms — or makes even one cop hesitate to pull the trigger on a fleeing suspect — it will have been an economical means to an end.

I believe in democracy, more or less, in a worst-system-except-for-all-the-others kind of way: checks and balances, due process, rule of law, all that, the same way I believe in Truth, Justice, and the American Way, the Golden Rule, or Rob from the Rich and Give to the Poor. But, watching helplessly as Donald Trump has ignored, second-guessed, silenced, and fired the few experts left around him during a crisis, discouraged basic health precautions and spread quack cures and conspiracy theories, incited revolt among his supporters and threatened to turn the military against the citizenry, I’ve caught myself secretly rooting for a coup — even though it would be a betrayal of our democracy, shattering the peaceful transition of power that’s prevailed for two and a half centuries. If Trump were to asphyxiate on a ventilator or drop dead of a heart attack, I would guzzle an entire bottle of champagne on the sidewalk right outside the liquor store — even though it would deprive voters of the opportunity to redeem our nation by publicly rejecting him. I do not endorse these wishes; I’m just reporting them as worrisome symptoms of the state of my own soul, and of the nation. I know I am not alone in these unconstitutional daydreams; they represent an alarming collapse of faith in the basic institutions of our democracy.

In a recent essay for The Atlantic, George Packer argued that America was a failed state — and that was before people burned down a police station and the president threatened to sic the military on us. It’s not a thesis I intend to dispute. But of course America has failed before, more than once. In his book, Beautiful Country Burn Again, Ben Fountain argues that this country arrives at a moment of crisis every 80 years or so — historic crucibles in which the nation is forced to either reinvent itself or be destroyed. We think of Lincoln as our greatest president for refusing to allow the American democratic experiment to fail, but the fact that the South seceded at all meant it had failed already. The issue that had divided our nation for a century wasn’t resolved by the courts or the legislature, but by Union troops razing the rotten slave nation of the South to shambles and ash. Democracy failed again in the Great Depression — or, rather capitalism did, with which, in the American mind, democracy has become cancerously entangled. The U.S. Army (led by Douglas MacArthur) attacked its own unarmed veterans, who were demanding their bonus pay; crowds chanted “Hang Hoover” during that wretched president’s reelection campaign. America emerged from both these trials intact, but unrecognizable as the nation it had been before.

A third great failure of American democracy occurred — or, rather, was revealed — when the American electorate elevated a man you would never, ever cosign a loan for or even lend a lawnmower to the presidency. It was a failure of our entire political system: of the governing class, which ignored vast swaths of its economically obsolescent populace until a populist revolt became inevitable; a failure of the vampirically senescent two-party system, which offered up a couple of dynastic candidates that no one but their corporate donors wanted; of our winner-take-all primary system, which rewards candidates who pander to radicals; of the archaic electoral college, which gives disproportionate power to sparsely populated states and their old white rural reactionary Christian voters; and of our educational system, which left its graduates pathetically credulous to propaganda, disinformation, and conspiracy theories. But ultimately, it was a failure of the American electorate itself, of government by the people: a critical percentage of voters had become so ignorant, uncritical, and gullible that they elected a stupid, weak, mean-spirited reality TV star, a congenital liar and con man, as its chief executive. The American people had ceased to respect themselves, or to take their nation seriously; Trump is the “Boaty McBoatface” of presidents. America’s been deservedly hated at least as much as admired in the postwar era, but it was never, until now, a joke.

It’s frustrating for an American to see how functional the democracies of Western Europe are, compared to our own dilapidated backwater — our Darwinian health care system, our brutal prison state, our craven, hysterical gun culture, and barbaric apocalyptic cults. It’s easy to forget that one reason those nations are so enlightened now is that their civilization was gutted to rubble less than a lifetime ago, and forced to rebuild itself from the ground up. It is the nature of nations, like all institutions, to resist change — in the most inflexible and decadent of them, even unto death. Police departments and police unions across the nation have belligerently resisted any reform or oversight for decades. Our congress has thwarted or quashed progressive legislation from the regulation of greenhouse emissions to gun control to campaign finance reform (the problem that prevents all those other problems from being solved), all of which are supported by majorities of Americans. This is not just inertia: what seems, to ordinary people, like crippling dysfunction is an enormously profitable setup to the people who own and control our government. Some institutions are so thoroughly committed to their corruption that the only possible reform is their destruction and rebirth.

America is failing because it was designed to fail, over and over — to require and withstand periodic revolutions. Some people idealize our Founding Fathers as visionaries of human liberty; others condemn them as hypocritical slave owners. I think they were more like us: flawed, complicated people living in a world founded on cruelty and greed, trying to envision a better one. They couldn’t figure out how to abolish slavery in the time they lived in, so they wrote a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution whose contradictions made its abolition possible — inevitable — in a better future. Every American lives in this state of doublethink, seeing and living in two Americas superimposed over one another; the one it is and the one it was supposed to be. For most people, those two Americas overlap; for some, the ideal eclipses the actual so that they can’t even see its squalid realities; for others, the two don’t even touch.

It seems, right now, as if no one knows what to do or what happens next — which is frightening, but also exhilarating, because it means that, briefly, anything is possible. The total vacuum of national leadership is what enabled these breakthroughs; as it became obvious that no one was in charge at the federal level, governors, mayors, and town councils have stepped forward to take their own stands and propose new solutions — solutions far more radical than any national politician would have risked publicly mentioning. People are talking openly and seriously about utopian notions, from a universal income to defunding or abolishing the police, that were unthinkable just a few months ago. Maybe quarantine gave us all some time to get off the nonstop frantic hamster wheel of the news cycle and think. It’s like when you’ve been abroad for a long time, and experience culture shock on coming home, realizing this once-familiar place is a bizarre and arbitrary dystopia. You can’t believe you ever lived like this.

Tim Kreider is the author of two essay collections, and a frequent contributor to Medium and The New York Times. He lives in NYC and the Chesapeake Bay area.

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