America: Now What? Part 6



“This Is Not Haiti”

Back to Part 5 of 8: Even Worse Presidents to Follow

“We’re going to lose our republic,” cried Marco Rubio on CNN on March 13, days before Trump clobbered him in the Florida primary and knocked him out of the race. “It looks like something out of the Third World.” Rubio also referred to Trump as a “Third World strongman” and called violent clashes at Trump rallies “Third World images.” And he said that Trump was

arguing that he himself is the singular figure that’s going to do these amazing things for the country. He’s asking us to basically make it a nation of a man instead of a nation of laws. Our founders chose a very different form of government. … We don’t have political messiahs in America, and every nation that’s tried to find one has ended up finding that those people are fallible and make terrible mistakes. When you deposit that much faith and confidence in one individual, you’re bound to be let down.

Rubio’s lament brought to mind something that his fellow Miami resident Edwidge Danticat had said to me, at a diner in the Little Haiti neighborhood three days after Election Day 2012. “That’s the first thing that people always say,” she pointed out.

Like in Katrina, what did you hear? “This is not Haiti,” or “This is not Africa.” And even people who are standing in gas lines, they’re saying, “This is not a Third World country. This is America.” … It’s the greatest shame to be this other thing, to be this Third World country. Even now, Greece is the Third World country of our nightmares. But this is where everybody’s headed.

We middle-class Americans thought we could be unlike the rest of the world, and we succeeded for a while, at least in our own minds, but only at the cost of living a lie. As James Howard Kunstler put it in his April 4 blog, “The grand entrance of Trump, with his unfiltered mouth, into the political arena becomes a preliminary argument for sweeping away the accumulated sclerotic political baggage of four generations lucky enough to have lived in a world that briefly allowed fantasy to override the laws of physics and human nature.” But Rubio’s stridency masked a real and (I think) honestly felt poignancy because, as the son of working-class Cuban immigrants, he didn’t just inherit the so-called American dream as a birthright like many of the rest of us; whatever his foibles or delusions or hypocrisies, he earnestly strove to live and embody and renew it. He wanted to be optimistic, and I appreciate that. But he also wanted to be honest, and I appreciate that too. Asked for a hint of his future plans, he told reporters: “I haven’t even thought about what I’m going to have for lunch today. If I never hold elected office again, I’m comfortable with that.” In the crucible of the Florida primary, Rubio seemed to have undergone some sort of Luke Skywalker-like conversion experience, saying things that sounded wise and chastened and earned.

Meanwhile, stage leftish, Hillary Clinton graciously praised just-deceased Nancy Reagan and her husband for “start[ing] a national conversation on AIDS” – which, as gay activists swiftly and unsparingly pointed out, was the exact opposite of what they had done. Hillary then predictably and haughtily “apologized,” claimed she “misspoke,” then proceeded to chide black anti-Trump protesters with an insipid schoolmarmly lecturette about how “violence has no place in our politics.” The ultimate Washington insider considered it more important to say polite things about fellow Beltway royalty than to say true things or provide real leadership to American society. In that moment, I felt that Hillary Clinton played no useful role in American national life.

But what if, despite that, she were actually to end up winning the election and becoming president? I certainly would prefer that to Trump or Cruz, but what then? Parallels with a female politician in another country I’m familiar with are disturbing but revealing. Like Benazir Bhutto, Hillary is pursuing a remedial personal project to redeem the equivocal legacy of a male family member whose time in power can be seen in retrospect, if you squint hard enough, as a national heyday. Also like Benazir, she is widely loathed both by office-holding members of the opposing conservative party and by extremists prone to violence. Benazir was a privileged scion of one of the wealthiest landowning families in Pakistan, awkwardly trying to play the role of national savior. She rode her dead father’s coattails into office after the 1988 election, in the wake of the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship, heading a minority government, only to disappoint and embitter liberal Pakistanis like my colleague Taimur-ul-Hassan, who told me in 2003:

Emotions were high because we had been through hell in Zia’s days, and we thought Benazir Bhutto might be able to change things. She is so arrogant. She doesn’t take any counsel. She thinks she is a wisdom unto herself. She could have opted to sit in opposition and wait her time, but she chose to compromise with the establishment. So where do we stand? Where do people like us stand, who thought she would take on the establishment? She cannot say anything to people of Pakistan. People of Pakistan brought that woman twice to power. People of Pakistan owe nothing to Benazir Bhutto. … At least she could have organized the Pakistan People’s Party at the grassroots level. There was not a party office in Lahore, when she was in power.

Later, for a brief period in 2007, Benazir seemed genuinely to be channeling the best aspirations of the Pakistani nation. Then she was assassinated.

Entities like the Republican and Democratic parties are not sacrosanct or timeless or indivisible. For that matter, neither is America itself. So, whether we like it or not, it’s necessary to imagine the unimaginable. Donald Trump has said he would give unconstitutional orders, which retired military officers have said their serving colleagues would be oath-bound to disobey. If Trump were to win the election, it’s conceivable that some officers, spurred by honest patriotism, would consider it their duty to overthrow him. Such scenarios have played out many times in other countries. I was in Pakistan twice for long stretches during the tense year preceding General Musharraf’s unsurprising October 1999 coup there, and I was actually in Cambodia in early July 1997 to witness the coup there. Both cases illustrate a hard truth: that military takeovers happen when civilian politics breaks down. I began writing Home Free with reflections on the temporal congruity between the weeks-long occupation of the state capitol square in Madison, by 80,000 middle-class Wisconsinites in sub-freezing weather in early 2011, and the “Arab Spring” revolution in Egypt. I was not alone in drawing parallels; even the New York Times ran a piece headlined “Cairo in the Midwest.” Both uprisings seemed like good ideas at the time. But by the summer of 2013, as I was completing my narrative, I felt compelled to wonder aloud: “If this was how things were turning out in Egypt, how could we expect them to turn out in Wisconsin?”

Yet a truth of history is that things never do turn out, per se. Stasis is a chimera, and in any case stasis is death. As Robert Harris’s narrator says in Lustrum, the prequel to Dictator: “There are no lasting victories in politics, there is only the remorseless grinding forward of events. … Perhaps Caesar is right – this whole republic needs to be pulled down and built again.”

Continue reading … Part 7 of 8: Should the New Normal Be Normative?

You are invited to read the eight-part chain of essays “America: Now What?” online here. It will also be published, in print and as an e-book, in early 2017 by Blue Ear Books as part of a collection of speeches and writings titled America: Now What? and Other Questions. Purchase Home Free: An American Road Trip now for $14.95 plus $3.95 shipping, and you will receive one of the first copies of America: Now What? and Other Questions when it is published in early 2017.